Cuba Dreams, Applause Is the Easy Part

Fernando Ravsberg

Cuban family's home. Photo by Darko Perico

HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 2 — Curiously, over the last several months, the positions of the small dissident movement, émigrés and the government concurred in pointing out that no reforms are taking place in the country, only adjustments to the model that has functioned in Cuba for 40 years.

Parliamentary president Ricardo Alarcon was the first high-ranking politician to insinuate something different.  As he stated in Beijing, “Cuba is prepared to take advantage of the development experience of China in reform and opening up.”

However, it’s necessary to recognize that it was Comandante Fidel Castro himself who first surprised us all when he commented to American journalists that the Cuban model no longer works even for Cuba.

It was also he who said, when making public self-criticisms, that his worst error had been to think that he knew how to construct socialism.  This idea that no one is the owner of the truth could be key for the future of Cuba.

New schemes and old skeptics

That’s why the orientation published in the Party’s newspaper seems quite healthy; according to this, no one should be prevented from expressing their ideas in debates, recognizing that participation “is a right of each Cuban (…) because what is at stake is the future of the nation.”

To achieve this they will have to convince their compatriots that this time matters are being handled seriously, because many people I know doubt that their opinions will be taken into account. Jokingly, they tell me that this is a conditioned reflex.

I reminded my friends that following the last national debate in 2007, several of their criticisms were heeded.  Transportation was improved, housing repair and construction was promoted and self-employed work expanded.

They recognize the truth in this but insist that this was not the norm. They told me that in assemblies prior to the Fourth Congress of the Party [in 1991], people requested en masse that senior high schools be transferred from rural areas back into the cities and that agricultural markets be reopened.

Though life agreed with them, it took almost spent 20 years before the government accepted that maintaining tens of thousands of students living in schools in the middle of nowhere was ideologically useless and economically unaffordable.

The opening of the agricultural markets took place merely three years after the Congress, but not as a response to the popular demand; instead, it was forced by a serious illness called neuritis, which was caused by conditions of the lack of vitamins and minerals suffered across the whole island.

The need for informed decision-making

People in Cuba are educated and bright, which convinces me that on the whole they’ll be able to make the best decisions.  But it’s not enough to allow them to speak.  They also need access to serious, deep and sufficient information.

If Cubans were clearly familiar with the economic data, they would understand why things cannot be straightened out with simple retouches. In passing, they would be convinced that this time the march backwards is materially impossible.

They also need information about what is occurring and how social systems operate in countries like China or Vietnam, where Ricardo Alarcon (a member of the Party’s Political Bureau) says they will draw from those experiences in undertaking reform.

In the past, the press and the speeches of politicians portrayed the Soviet model as a social paradise. In Cuba, all one could only see were the smiling healthy Russian workers on the covers of colorful magazines.

When reality dynamited the propaganda, many Cubans didn’t understand what had happened.  But what was worse was they continued without understanding afterwards.  They continued to look for solutions amid the shock wave that shook the foundations of their country.

Providing half truths as information

Undoubtedly, Cuba’s national press is very human, at least in the sense that it repeats the same errors over and over again. Now the “paradise” is in Asia, and criticism of China or Vietnam is not permitted.  The only difference is that today those “happy faces” have Asian eyes.

As always, they don’t lie – they only say part of the truth.  That’s why my neighbors are unaware of how health care or educational systems work in those countries, or what are the levels of inequality or how émigrés are participating in those countries’ development.  Anything that could create doubt is concealed.

To get the public to turn to the people’s assemblies and approve the plan for change with applause and shouts of “Viva la Revolucion” is the easy part.  As far back as in 1910, the brilliant ethnologist Fernando Ortiz revealed that simulation is a Cuban characteristic.

The government’s true political challenge is not in taking advantage of that burden, but in conquering it.  The task will be in succeeding at getting citizens to participate and become part of the effort, something they’ll only achieve if the new model is able to collect the dreams of everyone.

Authorized translation of the BBC Mundo original


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2 thoughts on “Cuba Dreams, Applause Is the Easy Part

  • Ever since you came to this place, Julio, you talked about how wonderful it would be for the Cuban economy if privatization of workplaces and market liberalization took place. Now that such reforms are on the way – preceded by a long deal of public debate – you tell us it won’t work. Make up your mind, or your critique is going to be purely destructive.

    Anyway, I don’t think Cuba is going to copycat the Chinese or the Vietnamese model. It will continue to develop its own, taking the Cuban context of today is very different than China’s or Vietnam’s of the 80’s.

  • Fernando it seems to me that the Cuban government does get to do things when it has no other choice. That is a very bad place to be in.
    It refuses to listen to the people. Your article shows examples. It insist in dictating from their ivory tower what people must do and so on. Just the current document they circulated is an example of such behavior.
    They should have started not with such document but with an empty slate where people will be first of all guarantied that nothing they say will be taken against them as in the past and to allow them to make any suggestions even if it means to go back to a full fledged capitalism. Then count all this and arrive to a determination that agrees with the people’s will.
    But of course allowing something like that will mean that those who are in power will have to return power back to the people and that is something they are refusing to do all the way.
    They do not want to return power to the people. Why that is?
    I think is above all self preservation. I think is ego. I think is egotism of the ruling class.
    While the reforms they are trying to do are a step in the right direction they are not going sufficiently far to make a change.
    The model of Viet Nam and China are not applicable to Cuba as long as the US keeps the embargo and the Cuban regime insist in making Cubans around the world their enemies.
    So I can tell you that the current changes will be meaningless for the great majority of Cuban.
    They will not notice any improvement in their quality of life. They will continue to be poor and now the government will not be helping them at all, only dictating “work harder!”

    As it is it seems like vicious circle of never ending poverty.

    Let’s change the scenario a little bit.
    Let us assume they actually consult the Cuban people including those outside of Cuba without regard to political orientation, Let us assume they actually let the opposition participate in the government of Cuba, Let us assume the US seen all of this encouraging developments ease in on the embargo. Let us assume they give freedom back to individuals and eliminate political persecutions and witch hunts for political reasons.
    Then Cubans will be able to determine what they really want to do. Instead of been parasitic society become a productive one. It is sad that there is so much unrealized potential for Cuba but those in power become the biggest obstacle to this development. In this last picture I am really talking about a soft an easy transition to a democracy. They can become the facilitators of this if they want and they are willing to let power go.

    So that is the question are they more interested in power or in Cuba? So far for the long 50 years they seem to be more interested in power.

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