Fernando Ravsberg

Invited to discuss the Party Guidelines (economic reforms), Havana’s Nuevo Vedado residents were barred from expressing opinions in favor of the professionalization of sports.

HAVANA TIMES — Cuban President Raul Castro recently acknowledged that “what we do isn’t perfect. Sometimes, lacking experience in some areas, we make mistakes. That is why every matter must be constantly subjected to critical observations.” (1)

He criticized the type of centralism practiced for decades harshly, insisting that “we’ve grown used to having instructions come down from above, and that has to change. All administrative bodies, from one end of the island to the next, must express their opinions.”

He added, however, that these criticisms must be voiced “at the right place and time and in an appropriate manner” – a notion that, for years, has constituted one of the most powerful weapons the bureaucracy has wielded to silence criticisms from citizens.

Anyone who knows what Cuba is like today knows that people express their opinions when, where and the way they please. Suffice it to approach a bus stop in the morning, stand in line in front of the ration store when the food quota arrives or at the bank when retirees collect their pensions, to confirm this.

Note even god can reverse this situation, but Raul Castro’s statements could be used to curtail such practices. In the hands of corrupt or inefficient officials, those 16 little words could be used to prevent people from speaking at the right place and time.

This is what happened, at least, during the debates surrounding the Party Guidelines held in Havana’s neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, where residents sought to express their opinions about professional sports and were told that the issue couldn’t be discussed. Months later, the government would do precisely what people had been suggesting.

Production processes at Cuba’s fishing company PRODAL must undergo hygiene-related improvements, no matter how unpleasant this may strike the management.

This brought to mind a young professional who was told by the managers in her company she could not express criticisms regarding the production process during a meeting, because high officials from the Ministry of Fisheries would attend. “It is neither the time nor place,” they told her then.

The willful young woman expressed all her criticisms regarding the company’s hygiene processes anyways, and, from that moment on, her life in the workplace became so difficult that, some months later, she was forced to quit, to the joy of some higher-ups.

Rabindranath Tagore used to say that, if you close the door on all your mistakes, you’ll end up leaving the truth outside. If Raul Castro is serious about getting people to participate in debates, it would help to clearly define the terrain and the rules of the game.

If he does not clarify his comments, the bureaucracy will use his words at its convenience and in accordance with its interests. Jose Marti, who wrote about practically every subject, said that all reforms bring about change, and all change invariably undermines interests – which is why such interests tenaciously oppose reforms.

The same thing that happened with the press could happen here. While the government invites journalists to put secrecy behind them, other high officials recommend that cases of corruption go unpublished, thus protecting the “reputation” of the criminals and thieves that are emptying the State’s coffers.

Reforms and Unanimity

Cubans haven’t only become accustomed to receiving instructions from above, as the president says today; they have also become accustomed to the unanimity that exists in the high spheres of power, a unanimity that projects the image of a monolithic leadership.

Last year, the Cuban parliament approved a law by a majority vote for the first time, breaking a 40-year pattern of unanimity in high government spheres.

For decades, parliamentary debates in Cuba ended with the unanimous support of the country’s 600 deputies. In 2013, for the first time in all these years, the assembly approved a law by majority vote – a magnificent leap from the official discourse to everyday life.

Many don’t know what to make of these contradictions. Some believe there’s still unanimity and think that it is all a political game. The majority, however, has begun to suspect that there are different opinions as to the course the nation should take.

There may be a bit of truth to the two opinions: Cuban leaders are skilled players (surviving 50 years of US hostility demonstrates this); however, differences in the leadership didn’t come about with the reform process, they’ve always existed.

How else could we explain the destitution of so many high-ranking officials in the course of these past fifty years, from those who didn’t like the taste of tropical socialism at the beginning of the revolution to the beekeepers of recent years?

Cuba’s challenge today isn’t to try and restore that false image of unanimity but in creating spaces where people can participate in the country’s changes. As Jose Marti explained, “reforms are only fruitful when they penetrate the spirit of the people.”

(*) A Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.


5 thoughts on “Cuba: Toward More Fruitful Reforms

  • March 8, 2014 at 6:18 pm
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    The Castros probably could have done a better job when it comes to ‘buying time’ with their reform process. To me it seems that the crackdown on home cinemas and clothing retailers in November could turn out to be a costly mistake for them. They could have kept people faithful or at least passive and obedient by ‘advancing without haste’ as Raul puts it. My impression is that the governments actions in November have placed Cuba on an irreversible track which is leading to some sort of uprising and ruling out any orderly transition to a post ‘revolutionary’ era.

  • March 8, 2014 at 1:00 pm
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    Oligarchy means in its original form: “rule of the few”.
    It was used in Russia to describe the men that profited from the end of the Soviet state to enrich themselves.
    That is what the Cuban elite wants.
    An anarchist rejects dictatorships and the Castro regime is one. Just like the Spanish Stalinist directed communist leaders destroyed the anarchists in Catalunya Fidel and Raul are the antithesis of anarchism. The represent Stalinism.

    When the regime starts democratic reforms the sanctions will automatically end. The sanctions arenn’t what stops change: the ossified elite is. they wait for Fidel to die to become the autocratic oligarchy of Cuba.
    Fidel is an opportunist who abused the anti-Batista revolution of true heroes like Frank Pais and Huber Matos and turned to the Soviet Union when it became clear the US would have nothing to do with him.
    He is the standard “caudillo” behind a Stalinist screen.

  • March 7, 2014 at 11:13 am
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    It would appear that the goal of the Castro reforms is to buy time for the moribund regime. The Castros realize that as more information about life outside of Cuba is known inside the island through cell phones, DVDs, internet access and increased tourism, it becomes increasingly harder to maintain the ruse that life in Cuba is better than life abroad. In order to placate the masses, these tepid reforms are offered as small steps towards normalcy. The Castros know their days are numbered and in the end nothing will save them.

  • March 7, 2014 at 10:57 am
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    Cuba is a plutocracy : rule of the powerful , i.e. Leninist , a state-run society .
    What it is not is an oligarchy: rule of the wealthy .
    That designation applies to the government of the United States .
    but not Cuba’s .
    I agree with your analysis for the time being but would keep my options open for the future if and when the U.S. ends its hostilities.
    At that point many economic burdens will be alleviated and Cubans society will be allowed to evolve under normal conditions.
    I say this hopefully although as an anarchist I firmly believe that all governments, like the present Cuban one, long enough in power become self-preserving, corrupt and totalitarian.
    This anarchist belief has been borne out in Cuba and it will take the lifting of the U.S. embargo to enable any serious democratic reforms in a society still committed to the democratic socialist ideals inculcated in the Cuban people by FIdel’s thoughts and words. .

  • March 7, 2014 at 4:03 am
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    To think that any real reforms will come under this leadership is wishful thinking. At best the so-called “reforms” are setting up a “political / economic / military” oligarchy.
    The army has defeated its political and economic rivals taking over control over control of key political posts and most economic assets.
    This oligarchy isn’t prepared to start any meaningful dialogue with anyone that may demand a fair deal and freedom for the Cuban people.
    The “Castro purges” the author refers to were – to a large extent – the elimination of members of the rival elites. Ricardo Alarcon and his group are a good example: sidelined or jailed.

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