Changes Needed for the Future of Cuba

Cuba’s municipalities. Mayari is in red and the province of Holguin in yellow. Map:

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

HAVANA TIMES — Every so often, a rumor goes around my town Mayari that it is going to become a new province. People who, for some reason, rub shoulders with the authorities ardently defend this possibility arguing that “it was mentioned at a meeting or that they were hinting at it at least.”

The most gullible of us say that the subject of dividing Holguin into two provinces has been under discussion for quite some time now and the eastern part, ours, would be converted into a special industrial park because it would include Nicaro and Moa, nickel mining centers, and Felton-Cajimaya, another industrial park. Mayari would supposedly be its capital.

These rumors, forgetting whether they are true or not, are making everyone very happy. It’s giving them hope that things will improve. Municipal affairs are depressing and their resources are very limited. The Cuban socialist system makes it impossible for municipalities to act independently, even though the last lot of legislation that was passed actually encouraged this kind of self-management for the first time. The truth of the matter is that it doesn’t matter how much a municipality produces or how much it has the potential to produce, its wealth doesn’t directly affect its public budget.

Marti Park in Mayari. Photo:

All of the country’s resources are controlled by the government’s centralized organizational structure and funding is then divided between provinces and municipalities. It doesn’t matter how they are run or the efforts they make, funds are distributed according to other criteria. That’s why in a municipality which is very rich in financial resources, such as Mayari, you can still find potholes that are half a meter deep on the main road, for years, and it seems like nobody cares. This is just one example of the many unfathomable consequences of this system.

Even higher ups of the Communist Party and People’s Power local and provincial governments have to suffer these potholes on a daily basis when they drive home or on their way to work. But they still don’t do anything about it. Every once in a while, they fill them up with rubble an insignificant amount of asphalt that’s been left over from another construction project. However, two or three weeks later and the hole is there again and all they’ve managed to do is to create more dust and mud in our urban landscape.

Ordinary Cubans watch these leaders go past and, because they’re unaware of how the national budget works, they criticize them through clenched teeth and blame them for not caring about the town’s best interests. They believe the problem lies at the bottom and not at the top of the pyramid. “If only Fidel or Raul were to see this: the young people who are running things now are ruining the country and the only thing they want to do is to live well themselves.” That’s what people say every time something doesn’t work, which is nearly always.

This idea is consolidated by the fact that when high-ranking national government officials come to visit these parts, resources and special reserves are found to improve the roads within days, and sometimes even within hours. They paint building fronts and they put away torn sheets at the hospital and put out the new ones for a short time at least. People see this as a display of the insolence of local leaders and not of the “great” leaders who designed and have encouraged this kind of system.

As everything is done in such a hurry, nothing is done with high enough quality and the resources which are used, don’t even have the social value they hoped they would, because soon afterwards, what has been fixed, breaks down again. It’s a vicious cycle. However, in provincial headquarters, things work a little differently. As “the prism is inverted”, it’s back to front, municipalities don’t control what they should get because of the wealth they’ve generated and have to wait for the centralized government to give them their funding instead. However, provinces have certain privileges: more resources, more possibilities to sustain repairs and investment, which no matter how small they are can still make a huge difference in any ordinary municipality.

That’s why people want to move to Havana so much, or to a provincial capital or even for their municipality to be magically awarded the title of “province”. I seriously doubt that anyone who lives in Los Angeles believes that Sacramento is more important or better than their city; the same goes for people in New York who definitely aren’t jealous of those who live in Albany; nor those in Miami of those in Tallahassee. These are only three examples of cities which have prospered and grown more than their provincial capitals.

Where territorial autonomy exists to manage resources and to stimulate the economy, growth and development mainly depend on local management. However, here we depend on privileged appointments to positions of power and distribution, which are far from being economic stimuli and don’t inspire a creative spirit.

To continue with the example of my own municipality, there were around 120,000 inhabitants until recent decades, but now we don’t even reach 100,000. Every year, thousands of people migrate abroad, to Havana and to other provinces. Nearly all of our specialty doctors have left for Ecuador and are working there of their own accord. Thousands and thousands of young people have marched through Ecuador, before, and Guyana, now, to reach the US and many others are preparing the same journey. In my small suburban neighborhood, dozens of people have emigrated in the last few months alone.

The Moa nickel mines. Photo:

However, this municipality has suitable lands for farming. There are probably over 20,000 hectares, I don’t have the exact figure, but the old Preston sugar mill had over 10,000 hectares of sugar plantations, which covered the large majority of our flatlands; and 60% of our territory is mountainous and very well-suited to cultivation. In addition to this, we have two large reservoirs, one of which is the famous Mayari dam, one of the largest and most strategic dams in Cuba. In Mayari’s Pine Forests, there are sizeable reserves of laterites (iron, nicket, cobalt and chromium), which have remained unexplored up until today due to the closure and destruction of the Nicaro factory; these are the famous deposits that Fidel offered to give to Roosevelt in a letter he wrote when he was 12 years old.

We also have very important forest resources, coffee plantations and livestock, even though they’ve been depleted a little due to the State having abandoned them. In Mayari valley, we have thousands of hectares which are ideal for tobacco cultivation, a centenary tradition, which aren’t outdone in quality by even the best plantations in Vueltabajo, Pinar del Rio. Today, the tobacco industry is slowly recovering and expanding once again.

Likewise, Mayari is the municipality that produces the most amount of electricity in the entire country, mainly thermoelectric power at the Felton factory; sugar production was estimated to be around 100,000 tons but this slowly declined because of poor management until the sugar mill was finally destroyed; the same thing happened with the nickel factory, the torula (yeast) factory, the ice factory, etc.

A lot of resources plus a lot of destruction, along with poor management. We have a lot of agricultural, mining and industrial opportunities; however, we lack the workforce to sustain them because people are emigrating and the city is falling apart, in spite of there being a special development project in the works which has been going on for a decade now and has very little to show for itself.

A decade ago, the Spanish municipality of Alcorcon, Mayari’s sister city, donated important resources for social projects and there was a joke on the street because these kinds of things aren’t covered by the media. On one of their visits to the Municipal Assembly, they read a report with the municipality’s financial statistics and its wealth surprised them greatly; so much so that they said that “if their municipality had Mayari’s resources, they would be one of the richest in Europe.” They never came back again with donations.

This is just one example of the real cause of our misfortunes and their concrete results. Cuba needs to change a lot of things if we want to get out of the predicament they put us in with their voluntarism, utopia and lack of a real democracy (stigmas which now plague socialism, on the whole). The US embargo is their great excuse and it’s true that the damage it’s done is great too, but even greater than this is our internal embargo which has been created by this dysfunctional, inefficiency-causing, inefficient and damaging system.

We have to make a lot of changes in the New Cuba: from municipal autonomy (which in turn will encourage local development) to a new political-management division (which will reduce the number of provinces), which only lead to more bureaucracy, more costs, more leaders and none of it is necessary for us to grow as a municipality.

Growth and development will come naturally when resources are rightfully used, financial management is independent, when we believe that great efforts will bring great visible results, not abstract ones like the ones we have today that only exist as statistics. In short, we’ll have financial freedom, democracy and everyone will be able to enjoy all their human rights.

9 thoughts on “Changes Needed for the Future of Cuba

  • Carlyle, thank you for your thoughtful answer. Perhaps you have more optimism in the capitalist elements of US society than I do, having lived here and seen the rampant progress towards unregulated capitalism. We have achieved the dubious recognition of presently being the most unequal, disparate society in our history, already surpassing the decadence of the early 20th century. It is quite sad, and only shows signs of degenerating further. I am certain huge sums of money would flood into Cuba and, without the overriding guidance of a strong concern for social welfare such as was the case in the early years of the Revolution (land reform, literacy campaign, health and education initiatives, etc.) it would not be equally distributed amongst all the people, most likely further exacerbating the existing poverty discrepancy and leading to a situation not unlike our own, of very wealthy and very poor, with a small middle class. I hope to see an easing of capital restrictions, on both sides of the channel, to allow infrastructural investments benefiting small business and the masses, while keeping in check rampant capitalist overreach and multinational sprawl preventing equitable dispersal of fiscal gains for the masses. If you’re willing I’d very much enjoy carrying on this conversation via email. We could transmit our personal emails privately through our Facebook pages if you have on. Thank you.

  • Hi Ryan, your question is a very interesting and cogent one. I don’t know whether you read the chapter in my book about the USA, which commenced with the following:
    “US policies towards the Latin American countries have been a succession of political blunders of magnitude since the adoption of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823”
    Much of your analysis is correct and it is also correct that initially the revolution – which was not fought as a communist one and which attracted non-communists including Camilo Cienfuegos, Huber Matos and for example 38 other ‘officers’ subsequently jailed by Fidel for failing to support his introduction of communism, did improve the lives especially of many of the black population. I also wrote that if Fidel Castro following a period of military rule had:

    “held open free elections, the Cuba of today would be very different and Fidel Castro like Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela would have earned a similarly honoured place in world history for freeing his people and introducing democracy. But Fidel Castro in his craving for control and personal power chose otherwise, he chose communism and dictatorship.”

    There is little doubt that there are those in the US who would seize upon the
    liberation from communism in Cuba as opportunity to make a ‘fast buck’ without consideration for Cuban society. But it is also correct that Cuba requires long term investment.
    The challenge of change to a democratic society would bring pain and problems as demonstrated for example following the re-unification of Germany, when West Germans loyally investing in developments in East Germany experienced difficulties in finding East Germans who could take decisions and with the substantial differences in work ethic as folks had been accustomed to doing as they were told and putting in time at work rather than applying themselves. I visited a business south of Hamburg where the chairman was almost tearing out what was left of his hair having gone through the process I adumbrated.
    I recognize the suggestion that the country and its population might be jumping from the frying pan into the fire but despite the negatives which you describe, my view is that as demonstrated in Eastern Europe releasing Cubans from the communist yoke would have long term benefits and it would not take another fifty seven years to achieve a better life for the average Cuban.
    The differences of ‘class’ exist currently, there is the political hierarchy with their ‘privileges’, the remaining members of formerly rich families who receive succor (money) from relatives overseas, predominantly the US, then those who work for MININT who get special housing constructed and better incomes than the norm, then those with access through tourism to tips, then the professionals – medical and educational who have opportunity to work abroad as parts of the profitable contracts operated by the regime, then those who work for example in the mining and energy sectors and finally, those to be seen cutting grass with machetes along the sides of the auto-pista.
    Currently for by far the majority of Cubans, there is that “grinding poverty” you describe.
    No perfect world lies before any of us. The question is whether we should be part of a directed controlled mass, or have some degree of individual freedom to make our own decisions and to be able to address achieving an improved life for future generations.
    Hope that answers at least in part, your queries.

    As an unrelated observation, my grandparents neighbours in Aberdeen were named Ross!

  • Hello, Carlyle- I’ve read many of your posts lately and think I have a feel for your politics. Mine are different, but I respect learning from people who have a more intimate knowledge of subjects than I do, and having traveled to Cuba only twice over the last 5 years, I understand you, living there for much of each year, have a far more detailed understanding of the country, from a very different perspective. I just read some excerpts of your book and think I know a little of how you feel toward the country and the government. I have many questions I’d love to ask you, but this seems quite impossible in a venue such as this. So, I’ll start with one. You preach that Cuba would be much better off if the Castros would allow more freedoms of democracy and dissent to develop, but they do not because of their “paranoia.” I understand from your writing that freedom of expression is severely limited, and no one would consider that a good thing in any society. My question is, do you think allowing the influx of capitalist money that would inevitably flow from the strongest country in the world, 90 miles away, which has been hellbent for over 100 years to control, own, and profit from the bountiful resources of your beautiful country, would be a great benefit for the people of Cuba? Would the majority of the Cuban people realize great gains if foreign capitalist money swamped Cuban politics and threw out the Communist/Socialist way of life that has endeavored, at least in theory and to some extent in practice, to make life better for ALL citizens, not just an upper class as was the case before the Revolution? I understand this dream has fallen short over the years. But the Revolution did make life considerably better for many Cubans, you must agree. I just don’t see that an end to Communism and allowing the enemies of socialist programs in my country of the US, with shiny, glittering baubles and promises of riches to swarm in and make the changes, such as ending our social safety nets, that Republicans have striven to see happen here at home for more than 30 years would help the Cuban people. It would seem to lead back to the rampant disparity of pre-Revolution times where so few had luxury while so, so many had very little. Isn’t paranoia legitimate when the strongest, richest country has been very clear that it would like to destroy the model of a Latin American country able to chart its own course to a more equitable society than its own, where we have had, and now even more so, the most unequal distribution of wealth we’ve ever had? (Is it paranoia, or is it just reality?) Would an end to the Castro government result in an equitable society that was the dream of so many, or would some few take power and get filthy rich as the social programs, as meager as they have been forced to become, are discarded and the poverty of the lowest class became even more dire? The inequality that happens inherently, eventually under capitalism always results in what we see today in my country, more billionaires, a disappearing middle class, grinding poverty for the masses. Perhaps you will say that is what already exists in Cuba, on a much smaller scale. But how would allowing the wolf in improve Cuba’s situation at all? Thank you.

  • I guess Bob that it would be beneficial for Cuba to set the people free rather than the never ending need to retain centralized power and control. There are lots of talented people in Cuba – no different from the rest of the world, but it is the deliberate policy of limiting the use and expression of those talents that frustrates economic development.
    Cubans are by nature gregarious and enjoy participating in community events but the administrative powers at all levels of government seek to control those events rather letting local wishes to prevail.
    That is a basic problem with the imposition of a system, rather than selection of it by those affected.

  • Osmel: if you happen to be at the birthday party in Biran on 13 August, please introduce yourself. This is my real name. High probability that I will be the only American photographer there. Actually, if you are passing through Cueto on your way to Holguin, simply ask anyone in the library if I am in town. You don’t even have to remember my name. I’d love to buy you a beer and talk.

  • Carlyle: I will agree with you on the economic issue and its cause of centralized government control. Economics differ froms the social, cultural, and overall quality of live issues that we see differently.

    I know Mayari a bit from living in the adjoining municipality. I have to travel to Mayari to go to Immigration at least once every trip. While Mayari and Cueto seem to share economic struggles, the people in Cueto seem happier than those in Mayari. I personally see that resulting from community involvement in cultural and social events, something that can be addressed locally

  • Yes, it is time to provide greater local control. Even partial reinvestment directed by local governments would help.

  • I concur and applaud the author for discussing this intractable and urgent issue that Cuba and Latin America must resolve, if they are expected to ever move forward.

    The problem described is what I call the Third World Syndrome in which, every important institution in the country is in the capital, from where everything derives. Everything that is bad in the capital is worse in the rest of the country.

    Although the Revolution was acutely aware of this fossilizing, stagnating problem, which Fidel highlighted in one of his first speeches in 1959, when he affirmed that Havana was too far from Oriente and that the Cuban capital should be in Guaimaro, nothing has changed fifty-seven years later.

    Until each municipality and province owns it destiny and has to fend for themselves and government leaders in these areas are not hand-picked but evaluated through their easily measurable performance, we cannot expect any different outcome than the massive shortcomings we find everywhere.

    To demonstrate beyond any doubt what we are saying is the case of Barbados a tiny island in the Caribbean that fits 10 times or more in the Isle of Youth, has a diversity of industries and generate hundreds of millions of dollars more than the Isle of youth, who is withering for lack of initiative.

    Contrary to this backward way of government we see in Europe, Canada and to a substantial degree in the US, each community has their personality, identity, pride and rewards from where their income is produced.

    New York is the center of Banking, Silicon Valley in California is the
    capital of electronic technology, Massachusetts a meca of higher education, Plant City is the Strawberry capital of the world and Iowa the center of pig and
    cattle production.

    As long as the Ministry of Mining is not in Moa, the Management of the Salt industry, Coffee and Cocoa are not in Guantanamo, the cattle industry and railroad system are not in Camaguey or the Ministry of Forestry is not in Pinar del Rio, Cuba like so many others, will not be able to stop and reverse the endless migration to the capital with a self- destructive development mentality of the nation.

  • This can all be summarized by saying that the economy of Cuba following fifty seven years of “socialismo” is in a state of collapse.
    Ah yes! There are those who will in their ignorance of the reality of the Castro communist system maintain that it is all the fault of the wicked US embargo.
    But it is not the embargo that is responsible for the administrative systems of the State, the Provinces and the Municipalities. It is not the embargo that is responsible for the decline of virtually every sector of agricultural production and it is not the embargo that is responsible for good rich agricultural land reverting to bush.
    Cuba is a fortunate country in terms of natural resources, but the failure to recognize and take advantage of those resources lies at the door of the Castro communist regime and pursuit of communist thought and policies. It is sad for the people of Cuba who deserve better.

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