HAVANA TIMES, April 19 — “In Cuba there won’t be political reform.” It was surprising that this short statement by Vice President Marino Murillo was the one most published from his press conference held during the visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba last month.
I can hardly see the “news” in a position that the Cuban government has maintained for half a century. No Cuban authority has ever expressed the remotest possibility that the island would initiate a political transition.
However, I think there were other moments in his speech that were more remarkable, such as when he said that this time the changes in the economy are strategic and are here to stay, meaning that there will be no turning back.
This is an important issue that may give a little security to those who are now venturing into self-employment, receiving farmland or investing their savings in a house or a car.
This wouldn’t be the first time that an economic opening was created but ends a few years later with a resounding slam. Most Cubans have already directly experienced this, and those who were very young people know the stories from their parents.
“I’m going to take advantage of this while it lasts,” says a friend who opened a cafe. This is a fairly widespread philosophy that causes people to move cautiously and always try to “keep one change of clean clothes around – just in case.”
It’s true that the opening in the 1990s was dissolved as soon as the economy began to improve, but the fact remains that Fidel Castro himself alerted people in 1993 that they would return to the statist model as soon as conditions were appropriate.
NO TURNING BACK
The big difference is that now government officials at the highest levels are saying the changes are permanent. There’s no longer a bitter pill that must be swallowed to end the crisis; rather, the new model of economy and society needs to be accepted.
Juan Manuel Santos (the Colombian president and the chief US ally in South America) advised people not to be indifferent to the reforms in Cuba. “We must obtain the minimum consensus so that these changes come to fruition for the good of its people,” he said.
The Cuban-American businessman from Miami, Carlos Saladrigas, told me in an interview that the government has no other options. “The big question isn’t whether they’re going to take a step backwards, but how fast they’re going to go forward.”
Certainly what’s most criticized of Raul Castro and his team is the slowness. An economist told me that every action is preceded by feasibility studies, socioeconomic impact analysis and pilot field tests.
Cubans were accustomed to more rapid changes. In 1968, in a single season all small businesses were nationalized. Likewise, in one day in 1993, the dollar was legalized along with self-employment and foreign investment.
In any case, I wanted to know more about the reasons for the slowness, so I went to the source: I approached Vice President Murillo and asked him why they weren’t moving faster with the so-called “adjustments to the model.”
He was very specific: “We have a shortage of foreign exchange liquidity which makes any transformation more laborious; then too, the global crisis makes obtaining credit more difficult, and we need to prepare mentally for the changes.”
A foreign banker told me they would not have liquidity while health and education remained free. Immediately, two of his Cuban employees replied — fairly emotionally — that people here would never accept the privatization of those fields.
The government is trying to reduce costs by limiting, for example, the disproportionate access to higher education. One academic told me that reducing enrollment is easy, “It gets complicated because it has to be done without closing the doors to those with the lowest incomes.”
Saladrigas says you have to free the markets because they self-regulate, but the fact is that they weren’t able to do that in the US or Europe, where governments have had to intervene to rescue markets and contain the crisis.
When I talk to ordinary people, most dream of a better family income without losing their social benefits. It’s a difficult combination because if you pay higher salaries to doctors and teachers, the costs in these fields would skyrocket.
Obviously no reform is easy when you’re short on funding, but every Vietnamese leader who visits Cuba reminds the authorities that to implement the Doi Moi (“renovation”), the most important thing is the change of mentality.
A more decisive and transparent policy with authorities who steal, with people who are negligent and with those who have repeatedly proven their inability, would provide the resources and create the conditions for fostering new changes for the benefit of people.
(*) An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.