A Needed Review of Cuba in 2010

Fernando Ravsberg

Store in Trinidad, Cuba. Photo: Elio Delgado

HAVANA TIMES, Jan. 7 — To summarize what happened in Cuba in 2010 is no easy task; there were so many occurrences that they cannot be covered in a single post.  I will try to separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the talk, and the outcomes from the aspirations.

Human Rights

Following that line, perhaps the most outstanding issue was that of human rights.  We began the year with the dissident elements concentrating on the concern of political prisoners and the death of one of them from a hunger strike.

Immediately after, another strike broke out demanding the release of 26 sick prisoners.  Raul Castro made an about-face: he entered into dialogue with the Catholic Church and agreed to release 52 of the prisoners of conscience convicted in 2003.

Not only did this double the number of prisoner releases requested by the dissidents, but it expanded the number of all those who were considered political prisoners and resulted in other inmates who were also serving time for non-violent crimes being freed from jail.

Even violent offenders benefited as the death penalty was commuted for all convicts.  In fact, the courts didn’t even request “the wall” for Francisco Chavez, the Salvadoran who recruited mercenaries to dynamite civilian targets in Cuba.

Changes in the economy

Meanwhile, the economy shifted its direction radically.  This began with the announcement of the layoff of 500,000 public employees (by the end of March 2011) and the opening of self-employed work.  This is a process that over a five-year period will impact a total of 1.8 million public-sector workers.

This measure, along with the end of some free and subsidized goods and services, will transform society.  The fact that Cubans will reduce their dependence on the government could be the first step toward the birth of a more autonomous citizen.

Barbers ceased being state employees and were put in charge of their businesses under cooperative forms of management.  Likewise, the first taxi companies were created whereby the drivers rent the vehicles and work how they choose.

More prohibitions disappeared.  People were authorized to build their own homes as well as to enlarge and repair them.  By that same token, it was announced that the sale and purchase of houses and automobiles would be allowed, measures demanded en masse by Cubans.

The government’s macroeconomic changes began to show results.  The economy grew along with exports, productivity increased, tens of millions of dollars were saved on fuel, and black market activities decreased.

Agriculture and bureaucracy

In agriculture, campesinos were able to put half the land given to them into production despite the government’s failure to extend them the promised credits or to sell them the necessary tools and supplies.

Those Guajiros (small farmers) cut the pervasive marabu weed with machetes and bought fencing wire at black market prices but witnessed their crops continuing to be lost in the infinite transfers organized by Acopio, the state distribution system.

No more can be requested from the campesinos if their hands are tied by the Ministry of Agriculture and its “resolutions and regulations,” coldly formulated in air conditioned offices in an enormous building close to the government headquarters and much too far away from the fields.

The bureaucratic “mechanisms” designed or endorsed in that ministry prevent campesinos from buying vehicles, tractors or irrigation systems.  It’s not even completely legal to start a cannery to save the crops that Acopio dumps along roadsides.

Solidarity and Exports

So, in 2011 we’ll continue eating imported foods like the rich.  Fortunately the government changed its relationships with the Third World, transforming disinterested Cuban assistance into a South-South exchange beneficial for both sides.

The growth in exports has to do with the tens of thousands of specialists — doctors, nurses, engineers, architects, agronomists, sports technicians — who provide professional services on five continents and now represent the biggest source of revenue for the country.

The diversification of international trade multiplied options and even stimulated Cuban investments, which include a luxury hotel in China, several laboratories in Africa, a water company in a desert, a “Coppelia” ice cream factory in Angola and hospitals everywhere.

From the Viewpoint of the Average Cuban

But the average Cuban has yet to believe that this time the changes are real, deep and especially irreversible.  This could be why people went through 2010 without major changes in their mentalities and much less in their attitudes.

It’s logical that this would be the thinking of the hundreds of thousands of people who will be fired.  To now earn a living as a self-employed worker they will have to pay licensing fees and taxes from the first day of start-up, as if the US$17 a month average that was paid to them by the government had been enough to accumulate capital.

During the nationwide debates on economic reform, many Cubans determined that the most prudent action was to remain silent.  Despite the calls by the president requesting frankness, few perceived that the value of a critical citizen was actually appreciated by those in power.

In my neighborhood things haven’t changed either.  The butcher stole a chicken from my neighbors and sold it on the black market, and a little farther down the street a grocer at the bodega store where rationed foods are sold did something similar with beans.  Notwithstanding, absolutely no one reacted.

But let’s be optimistic and hope that in 2011 — in a ticket office at the train station, in a meeting of a cooperative or in the bread line in my neighborhood — a Rosa Parks will appear who with a simple “no” will put everything in its place.

Havana Times translation of the Spanish original authorized by BBC Mundo.

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One thought on “A Needed Review of Cuba in 2010

  • Almost looks like a state of the union address.

    This is something that is needed. It is a great idea to do. So people can see at a glance what are the changes positive and negative.

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