Cuba’s Clock Is Ticking Away

Fernando Ravsberg

Center for collecting recyclables.

HAVANA TIMES, April 14 — A few days ago I met an old woman who walks the streets of Havana picking up empty beer and pop cans so she can make enough money to make it to the end of the month.  They pay her eight pesos ($0.33 USD) for every pound she turns in.

This grandmother works the whole day because to earn a dollar she needs to collect 228 cans.  To reach the end of the month with the minimum income needed for basics of $78 (USD) is impossible, since this would mean picking up 18,000 cans – some 600 cans a day, seven days a week.

Despite that meager income, the number of people engaged in this activity is quickly growing.  They serve a double function: recovering raw materials and cleaning cities of polluting scrap.

It’s true that in other parts of the world there are also people who collect recyclable materials, and it’s also true that the Cuban buzos (“plungers,” those who rifle through trash dumpsters) enjoy some social benefits that their Latin American counterparts don’t have, such as free health care and education for their children.

But it seems that some people believe that this is an extremely lucrative profession; therefore to prevent these old people from becoming rich, they have begun demanding that they pay for licenses as self-employed workers.

“The national budget is all of us,” goes a public service notice in Spain that’s trying to convince that country’s citizens to pay their taxes.  It’s true that paying taxes is their civic duty, but levying taxes fairly is the government’s duty.

Who pays for big blunders?

While the government squeezes the tiny revenues of these people, in my neighborhood they spent millions of dollars to build an electric power plant that for one year has not lit a single light bulb due to the noise and vibrations that affect neighboring residents and buildings.

Centro Habana cries out for repairs.

And what do they use to pay for these blunders? – well, the money they’re trying to snatch from these elderly tin can collectors.  This is not a simple anecdote; it’s the essence of what is now taking place.

Those are the issues that matter to the average Cuban, and therefore ones that will surely be discussed at the upcoming Communist Party congress (April 16-19).  This is an excellent opportunity to give a push to a reform that has been advancing with adolescent shyness.

Years of debates, discussions and political negotiations have taken place before approving the purchase-sale of houses and automobiles, as if the destiny of the Revolution or the future of socialism depended on the sale of an old Russian Lada.

Months ago they confirmed to me that “everything is ready to allow the sales of cars.”  Now they’re telling me that they created a new registration system; there will be license plates for private owners and only one for State entities (those of the army, the Ministry of the Interior, the foreign press, etc. will disappear).

“Everything is ready” but it’s not approved.  They say that the debate will continue because some comrades are pressing for the authorization of sales only among Cubans and they insist on prohibiting citizens from buying automobiles from dealers.

Political negotiation dramatically interferes with and bogs down the process of reforms.  Whether this stalemate is unjammed is in the hands of the congress delegates, but it will be difficult to achieve it if they try to satisfy all the factions within the party.

A self-Interested bureaucracy

It’s not a question of deciding if it is changed or not, life on the island has already changed.  Beyond the will of the Cuban communists, the poor are becoming increasingly poor and the bureaucrats richer at the expense of the sacrifice of others.

Food production is a major problem in an economy that can't afford massive imports. Photo: Elio Delgado

The battle between some and others is unequal.  The bureaucracy exercises its power behind a matrix of laws, circulars, resolutions and norms that limit the freedom of action of campesinos, self-employed workers and intellectuals.

Their power resides precisely in being able to decide who buys an automobile, who moves into a house, what a small farmer can raise, who travels or how much a self-employed worker pays for a license.  And from that role of “Big Brother” also comes their dirty money.

Trying to maintain archaic laws to prevent the emergence of a new stratum of the rich is useless because these old ones have been living among us for years.  However the Cuban communists can indeed decide in their congress what sectors will benefit in the future.

Selling supplies to self-employed workers, tractors to campesinos, vehicles to transporters and ships to fishermen will undoubtedly generate wealth, but this would go in the pockets of workers and serve to motivate production.

Otherwise the riches will continue always flowing to the same people, those who instead of creating wealth simply steal.  This is the “autocratic officialdom” of socialism described by Jose Marti, who warned that they “will abuse the tired and hardworking masses.”

It is hoped that the delegates to the congress have very present in their minds the dramatic alert put forward by President Raul Castro: “Either we make corrections or the time will run out for continuing to skirt the cliff – we will fall.”

An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.

3 thoughts on “Cuba’s Clock Is Ticking Away

  • Yes, an excellent article, Fernando. Thanks.

    History shows us that the problem of bureaucracy is endemic with a state-ist economic system. The theoretical problem for socialists therefore is how to have socialism without choking bureaucracy.

    One way is for the state NOT to own all the land and all the instruments of production, but to allow small entrepreneurs like farmers and restaurateurs to own their enterprises, and allow employee associates of more significant industry and commerce to own their enterprises through cooperative corporations. The model for this of course is the associate-owned Mondragon cooperative corporations of Spain.

    The method for socialist government to obtain its necessary revenues from such a system would be for it to co-own up to half of various enterprises–whether independently or cooperatively owned–but to have its ownership through preferred, i.e., non-controlling stocks. In this way taxes and tax bureaucracies would be obviated, and yet the gov’t would receive ample quarterly dividend distributions.

    In such a system the communist activist might very well be a dynamic cooperative entrepreneur.

    As long as the Cuban party and gov’t conceives of socialism as the state owning everything, choking bureaucracy will continue.

  • The other place where I’ve seen many poor people carrying around sacks of cans destined for the recycling plant is San Francisco, in California. Even in the heart of the capitalist system, there are many people who struggle to get by.

    I’m interested in the figure of $78 per month mentioned as the minimum to get by. Most people in Cuba get by on a lot less than that. It’s not much of an existence, but people’s basic needs are catered for.

  • Excellent article. Useless laws which bureaucrats abuse to cover “their necesities” but instead they just create more of them, and not to forget the unproductivity and stealing in the state enterprises.

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