Cuba After the Pope: Reform or Doi Moi?

Cubans gathered along the Havana Malecon seawall. Photo: Raquel Perez

Fernando Ravsberg*

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.


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.


10 thoughts on “Cuba After the Pope: Reform or Doi Moi?

  • “The US saved countless lives ending the war in Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of prolonging it.”

    False. There was no need for the bombings, the Japanese ware at the blink of a cease-fire. The real purpose of the bombs were in fact used as a cruel intimidation technique to warn the USSR the power the US had.

    “No one knew or understood the devastion the TWO atomic bombs would deliver.”

    Also false. They all knew its power from the first atomic test on July 16, 1945, almost a month before Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And to this day the Japanese military is ‘supervised’ by the US.

    “On the other hand, in 1962, when a young and cowardly Fidel urged Kruschev to initiate a nuclear first strike on innocent US civilians he knew full well what the outcome would be”

    At least Fidel was wise and honorable enough to admit that he took the wrong decision about it. And fortunately the worst outcome of the 1962 missile crisis didn’t happen.

  • Luis, your final criticism is unfair and out of context. The US saved countless lives ending the war in Hiroshima and Nagasaki instead of prolonging it. No one knew or understood the devastion the TWO atomic bombs would deliver. In hindsight you can well criticize, but young men and women on both sides were dying by the hundreds daily in 1945. Eisenhower could not have known the cruelty and suffering the US would soon inflict on the Japanese homelan. On the other hand, in 1962, when a young and cowardly Fidel urged Kruschev to initiate a nuclear first strike on innocent US civilians he knew full well what the outcome would be. Not only would he bring death and destruction to hundreds of thousand of innocent American civilians but he was completely aware of the retaliatory capability of the American armed forces on his very own Cuban people. Of course, from his Soviet-built bunker, the Castro family would be spared. Neither side here is without shame.

  • (…) this very same country that dropped the bombs.

  • Moses, the big ideological triumph of so-called ‘democratic’ countries is to make the people think that the throne is always empty.

  • Of course, dropping two atomic bombs is WAY more civilized than firing squads getting rid of the scum that supported a despicable regime supported by this very same country.

  • Dear Glen Robert…… I am very sad for you because I know person like you with such romantic XIX century nonsense in the head suffers a lot when they come down to earth and find out Cuba is running to capitalism in same way China or Vietnam did……. of course the “civilized dictators tried first to sold 50% of the country to international “barbaric” capitalists, survive thanks soviet money first and Chavez oil later, but they soon found their system is not capable to survive without capitalism……. at least they are much more cleaver than you and understand that the only thing that can produce richness in this world is capitalism…… and there they go …… running after capitalism they tried to avoid for decades……….. of course, this “civilized” regime no longer is in need of killing people by thousands in fire squads, now they are more “sophisticated”, they creates paramilitary forces that armed with very civilized pieces of iron and much more civilized machetes defends this remarkable civilization beating all that dares to oppose regime or those that dares to protest……….. any resemblance with former military regimes in South America is just bad intentioned propaganda of despicable worms.

  • Glen, guys like you are a dime a dozen. When I lived in Cuba, tourists with their red star caps and Che t-shirts would spend a whole week visiting their political mecca all the while praising the “civility” of the Cuban people. Trouble was they didn’t see the difference between civility and repression. Your implied bias against the Catholic Church is unwarranted. The Church is no threat to Cuban freedom. On the contrary, it would appear a welcome ally. The constitutiional amendment is a sham. Cuban elections are a sham.If you don’t vote, first your CDR knocks on your door to “remind” you to vote and if that doesn’t work, someone from the State will escort you. There is no YES or NO option. Only YES. You clearly do not understand what struggles the average Cuban must endure to survive day to day in Cuba. Yes, universal health care and education are indisputable triumphs of the Revolution. These benefits along with the civility you speak of however come at too high a price for the majority of Cubans. Worse still, these pillars of the Revolutions like their buildings are eroding daily leaving less and less to justify 53 years of crushing sacrifice. You can be anti-capitalism while at the same time living within the full measure of its benefits. But to be pro-socialist Cuba and not spending one moment in line with your ration book at the bodega, or never having walked your child to school with few books, no paper and horrible conditions is the worst form of hypocracy yet. I hope I did not waffle.

  • I haven’t looked at Havana Times for awhile. I see you are still drunk on the power of your juvenile pens and blurting out immature and unjustified rebellion (just to be doing so, I guess). In fact, I can’t be sure what you think you’re saying, you waffle so much, but a muddled drumbeat for change permeates your essay, though, in fact, Cuba is probably the most civilized country on earth, and though of course there are problems, there are no problems serious enough to justify the kind of idiot regressions the pope wants (teaching catholicism in the schools, for instance) or that I think you think you want. If it is surprising, it is pleasantly surprising that one revolutionary country on this Earth has the guts and the intelligence to stick to its guns. I remind you that the constitutional amendment endorsed by almost all of Cuba, whatever you kids at HT thought or did at the time, wisely assures civilized people everywhere that Cuba will never return to the barbaric system of capitalism. Great!

  • Moses,
    The U.S will limit the number of Cubans admitted with any liberalizing of the right to emigrate by the Cuban government.
    There are a huge number of Mexicans and other Latin Americans who enter the U.S illegally , are caught and sent home.

    On the attendance at open air events in Cuba of which you spoke :
    Only 10 percent of Cubans are Roman Catholic.
    Nearly 100 % love music.

  • Well-written analysis. I would humbly add one comment. To change the Cuban mindset, the State must permit those Cubans who do not choose to participate in these reforms, the unhindered opportunity to emigrate. Emigration reform is critical. As long as Cubans can rightfully perceive that they are being forced to do anything, enthusiasm will suffer. Case in point: Mexico does not hinder its people who want to leave. They have instituted a number of economic reforms which have shown positive ecomic results including fewer Mexicans choosing to emigrate. When Juanes and his Paz Sin Fronteras organization gave a concert three years ago in the Revolution Plaza, an estimated 1 million people attended. No one was forced to go and attend the midday concert in under a hot Cuban sun yet the event was a record success. When the Pope gave his mass in the same Plaza last month, the governnment demanded offices closed and bussed in tens of thousands of workers, yet total attendance did not exceed 300, 000. If Cuba builds it right, they will come….

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