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.”
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.
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.