As Cuba Changes Will the Weakest Be Left Behind?

Photo: Raquel Perez


By Fernando Ravsberg

HAVANA TIMES — Some days before Pope Francis’ arrival in Cuba, I was invited to take part in a debate at the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue (CCRD) in Cardenas, Matanzas. People from around the country with different philosophies, beliefs and political stances had gathered there to speak of and about Cuba.

It was gratifying to once again confirm the ability Cubans have to converse about thorny issues about the country’s reality, respecting the opinions of others while listening to the positions that are vastly different from their own.

Jesuits, Protestants, atheists, Marxists, self-employed persons, gays, heterosexuals, sociologists, university professors, bloggers, journalists and ethnologists: all were seeking answers to the many questions surrounding Cuba’s present and its possible futures.

It was in this spirit that I listened to Pope Francis’ remarks. What drew my attention was his call on Cubans not to cease protecting the weakest in pursuit of “projects that may prove seductive but are blind to the face of the person next to us.”

Growing social differences in Cuba are clearly noticeable in consumption habits. Photo: Raquel Perez

A reader of this blog left a comment saying that “Cubans went into the Special Period economic crisis together, and they are coming out of it one-by-one.” The question now is whether we’ll all be able to come out of the crisis or whether the “weakest” will be left behind.

While some clamor for the locomotive of the reform process to speed up, others find it is already going so fast they can’t jump onto any of the wagons. What is to be done with those who cannot or do not know how to interact with Cuba’s emerging market, which is as splendid as it is implacable?

US journalist Jon Lee Anderson warns that “as the State begins to retreat before the possibilities of a new economy, there’ll be people falling through the cracks, such as the destitute, elderly and disabled. What will happen with the people sheltered by the Cuban State? That is the great challenge ahead.”

At the CCRD debates, participants explained to me that there are two reform processes underway in Cuba: the one steered from above, “slowly but surely,” and the one happening at base level, following its own logic and developing well beyond official plans.

Social classes are beginning to become more starkly defined in people’s housing, means of transportation, diet, clothing and recreational activities. Even though they are still nowhere near what we find in Latin America’s crude reality, the economic differences among Cubans are growing dramatically.

The government has promised to offer all citizens equal opportunities, but the fact of the matter is that some are better poised to take advantage of the liberalization process than others, lacking in capital, knowledge or business experience.

Economists see such differences as an engine for development, to the extent that it generates incentives for producers. However, this policy, taken to its extreme, leads to the hopelessness, poverty, violence and ungovernability the region is experiencing today.

What many fear is that the economic reforms are not accompanied by social policies tailor-made to protect the most vulnerable sectors. A model of subsidies is being dismantled without informing people what they can expect to confront in the future.

For decades, only one homeless person was known in Cuba, the “Paris Gentleman.” In a few years, the number of homeless people on the island has risen alarmingly. Photo: Raquel Perez

Even though Fidel Castro himself acknowledged that the “Cuban model” no longer works, the official discourse continues to announce that this is merely an “updating” of the old system. No one has yet informed citizens of the type of society Cuba is moving towards.

Authorities continue to insist that the changes will not abandon anyone to their fate, but, every day, we see more and more elderly people selling trinkets, more dumpster-divers rummaging through our garbage and more people living on the streets. All the while, the rest of us are becoming used to this “state of affairs.”

The official press, always so politically correct, has developed a new language to doll up reality. It refers to the thousands of homeless people who are emerging in Cuba (the product of near abject poverty) as “ambulant people.”

Many a time, we have heard the argument that, in order to preserve the social achievements of the revolution, an economic foundation for them must be developed. The problem is that the most vulnerable citizens need help now, they can’t wait years for the new model to “dish out” riches.

It’s said that “the quality of a society and a civilization can be measured by the respect it shows its weakest members.” This would be a good standard to begin assessing the human quality of the economic reforms underway in Cuba.

21 thoughts on “As Cuba Changes Will the Weakest Be Left Behind?

  • The Castros themselves do not bring down their prices to the level of Cuban incomes. Go into any TRD or Cimex business and compare the prices with the average income of Cubans! Those who shop there are only able to do so because they are receiving remittances from friends and relatives predominantly living in the much maligned USA. There are even Western Union offices in the stores themselves.
    The regime bleeds the people. As I have previously written, A $400 40″ TV purchased in Canada – price in Cuba $1050. A 6,000 BTU air conditioner, price in Canada $205, price in Cuba $400. These are actual figures. You dani don’t begin to comprehend the reality of Cuba.
    Try looking at the cost per minute of making a call to Cuba compared with other places in the western world. Why is that? It is because ETECSA has a monopoly and Rafin SA (Raul & Fidel Castro) has a 27% shareholding.
    You repeatedly illustrate dani that you don’t actually have a clue about the exploitation by the regime of the poor people of Cuba.
    Are you prepared to criticize the Castro family regime for the extortionate prices it charges through the GAESA controlled shops? Or is that too near the knuckle for you?

  • Just read an amazing letter from a past revolutionary during the early Castro days. It’s mind boggling to read and would love to email to you. I won’t post here nor give the venue with respect to privacy and Havana Times due process. Perhaps Circles can relay my email, if possible and I’d relay to you. Pretty much sums up what you’ve been stating since I’ve been reading Havana Times.

  • dani: you are saying you are not ideological but you are. Economics / dollars and cents are very different in the real world than internet postings about some utopia.

  • I’d like to know where this photo was taken … the 1st one in the shops. it doesn’t look like any shop i’ve seen in Cuba, in my limited experience visiting the country.

  • You can have as much competition as you like, but US companies aren’t going to bring their prices down to the levels of Cuban incomes. They don’t have 90% profit margins. Even if they did it would open them up to people buying phones cheaply in Cuba and smuggling them back into the US to resell at a profit. BTW the example and figures are for illustrative purposes not to be taken too literally. The same applies to any consumer luxury item.

  • I was using the example of mobile phones and the figures as an illustration, not to be taken literally. Choose any consumer luxury item you want and the same applies. What the US supplies to its citizens is irrelevant – they are still going to apply the same policies to Cuba.

  • I omitted to comment about the difficulties for those Cubans who do not get remittances from friends and relatives in the capitalist world. In Cuba in order to maximise the income of the Castro family regime, the average Cuban has to live on just 33 cents per day – a miserly figure imposed by the regime to maximise their prosperity and little more than one sixth of the Poverty Level of $1.90 par day declared by the UN.
    Cuba’s economy can be properly described as a mess and the main cause is the incompetence and ineptitude of the socialist totalitarian dictatorship. Batista’s dictatorship in Cuba was evil as are all alternative dictatorships.

  • Dani: since you concept of selling cellphone for 10 cents on the dollar does not make economic sense, how about a program that simply GIVES a cell phone and service to all the poor people?

    Well, THE US DOES THAT!. Anyone below 135% of the poverty level or receives government assistance such as food stamps (SNAP), housing assistance (section 8), free school lunches or many other programs GETS A FREE CELL PHONE WITH 250 MINUTES TALK TIME AND 250 TEXTS every month.

    Could it be the economic wealth of the US from capitalism provides that this can be done? And why does not Cuba do that?

  • How is that link coming along where us Disney employees can read where an intelligent life form corroborates your definition of socialism? My bet is that your definition of socialism only occurs in your nocturnal fantasies. Prove me wrong if you dare.

  • You first must understand what socialism is before you can post a cogent thought on the subject.
    How do the upper rungs of capitalism’s ladder differ from the lower rung where exploitation takes place.
    Let me guess.
    At the higher rungs the lucky few (er) suddenly grow out of exploitation. They go from cutthroat to philanthropist when they get richer.
    And snakes can do push-ups
    And the Pope is getting bar-mitzvaed.
    You really should work for Disney .
    They’ll likely and aptly board you at Fantasyland

  • DANI,
    You will find yourself vainly repeating facts too difficult for Moses , I.C. and Carlyle to either digest now or remember later.
    Cognitive dissonance will prevent them from accepting unpleasant fact when they have erroneous beliefs in the unreal too deeply rooted in their self-esteem to accept as untruths
    ” It is easier to lie to ( the above ) people than it is to tell them that they have been lied to.”
    Actually it’s much, much, much, much easier .
    I forgot who said that originally but it is a very sad truth that applies here .
    If you did not know it before, you’ll find it true when you have to repeat yourself to them on the same points .

  • The purpose of free-enterprise capitalism is TO MAXIMIZE PROFITS.
    Human need ALWAYS comes second which is why around half the world under FEC lives just barely on US$2.00 a day.
    For Cuba to maintain totalitarian control of its state capitalism and then go to the same ” no-money-no eat” DISTRIBUTION system as in all the other developing countries, would be a big step backwards in the quality of life for all Cubans .
    Once the U.S. Congress calls off the embargo-indeed, if it ever does- Cuba’s economy will soar and the Leninists will have enough money to maintain the population and retain their power should they choose to not democratize the society as their “socialist principles” would seem to dictate they would want to do.
    But until the U.S. calls off the economic war, poverty will be the reality for all Cubans as the embargo was fully intended to make happen.

  • All valid and important points .
    Bottom-up democracy is the only way.
    All else leads to corruption and totalitarianism.

  • Your argument about telephones/numbers of people doesn’t appear to be supported by the numbers of cell phones being sold annually. Capitalist competition has resulted in lower prices.
    The actual equation is that the higher the number of people with money to spend, the greater the amount of goods sold. The system in Cuba is the reverse, but just in case someone has some remittance money from friends or relatives in the capitalist world, the State has a sales monopoly.

  • Austerity, neoliberalism, Reaganomics, the chicago boys, trickle down economics are all basically the same. Cut government/public spending curb trade union power and increase unemployment and inequality. The US has enforced/promoted these policies throughout Latin-America. The troika has enforced this in Greece recently. Where have you been?

    My position isn’t that ideological, Moses says almost the same thing below, though he thinks it is a inevitable law of nature whereas I see it as a deliberate policy. I was talking about inequality not prosperity.

    I will try and explain again. If you sell mobile phones for a 100 pounds and the surplus average income is 10 pounds. You have two choices – bring your prices down to 10 pounds a handset and be able to sell to everyone. But this would severely cut into your profit margin. The other choice is to move the income of nine out of ten people to the one in ten so that at least one out of ten people have 100 pounds to spare. You don’t sell many phones but your profit is intact. It’s not so much of being evil it is just that the interests involved are different and so the US shouldn’t be given any say in how Cuba is governed.

  • Visit Cuba, stand in a public square and make criticism of the regime in a loud clear voice. Say that you despise the regime. You can do that is free democratic countries, indeed in the US you can demonstrate outside the White House, but if you do so in Cuba, you will have to make your next contribution to these columns from jail. You have freedom of speech, a privilege not enjoyed by Cubans.
    Note carefully dani that Ravsberg does not mention any criticism of the regime It is an offence in Cuba to criticize the regime. That is a statement of fact. If indeed there was freedom of speech, the CDR would be unnecessary! Just think about it dani!

  • Well dani, there you go talking nonsense. Why do you make such sweeping accusations? Can you please show me anything, anything at all, that supports your contention that the US does not want money invested in basic services and infrastructure?

    Your ideology, so often expressed in these pages, reflects a lack of understanding of even the most basic of economic principles.
    Why would US business want only a very small percentage of the population to be able to afford goods and services? I, as an evil capitalist business owner, want to insure a prosperous country where the large majority of the population can afford to buy my products. No one wants ti sell a fifth of anything. ….want does that even mean dani?.

  • “People from around the country with different philosophies, beliefs and political stances had gathered there to speak of and about Cuba.” “converse about thorny issues about the country’s reality”, “listening to the positions that are vastly different from their own.” So where is the lack of free speech.

    Along with the pressures from below and above, US policy is also pushing hard for an unequal society. They don’t want to sell a fifth of a mobile phone to five people or a hundredth of a car to a hundred people. No they want a small minority who can afford to buy consumer goods and the rest will be irrelevant. Also they don’t want money tied up in such things like education and health as the plan is to create as much disposable income in the hands of a few. This is one of the reasons why US interests aren’t the same as Cuban ones.

    I come from the position that inequality is bad and I recommend the book “The Spirit Level”. Some income differences in the short term are inevitable and possibly necessary. However the best way to avoid rampant inequality is for companies to be set up as true cooperatives where the workforce can decide the worth of their managers. In some cases they may need to raise managers incomes to attract suitable candidates and skills or in other cases they may ditch the manager as superfluous. Either way I doubt that the differentials would be that great. Incomes in the public and service sector can then be tailored to match that of the commercial sector.

  • Socialism promotes economic and social equality by making everyone poor. Castro-style socialism is designed to limit successful and hard-working people and to subsidize lazy and corrupt people. As Cuba, in order to survive, evolves towards the inevitable capitalist system, it will likely reflect the lowest rung of the capitalist ladder where the lucky few exploit or ignore the weak and vulnerable.

  • The “state of affairs” to which Fernando Ravsberg refers ought properly to be addressed as the main Affair of the State.
    Too much running around in pursuit of fooling the outside world into thinking that “change’ is taking place in Cuba. Fernando Ravsberg shows that the number of people living on the street is increasing, such is the change!
    Optical illusions ought not to be accepted by the world at large as reflecting any change in the actions of the Castro family regime within Cuba. The dictatorship retains and wields its power.

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