Cuba’s Reforms Seen from Viñales

“The only thing I need is a little space.

Fernando Ravsberg*

A walk in the countryside shows the effects of Cuba’s economic reforms. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — Over the weekend I went hiking along the trails of Viñales Valley, where I could see how the lives of people there have changed. I left my car at a lookout point, around which were several private restaurants offering me something to eat for when I returned from my trek.

I made a reservation at one of them, built with wooden decks in the air, protected from the sun by trees branches and facing the valley with a wonderful view. Since it had reasonable prices, this allowed me to share lunch not only foreign tourists, but also with Cuban families.

However these restaurants aren’t the only businesses that have flourished with the reforms. In the walk through the valley, we found a small stand where they were selling various cold fruit juices, ones that really hit the spot when you’re out in the tropical sun for a while.

The young couple running it told us they’re saving their earnings because they want to expand the business. Their dream is to build a big open-air area under those same trees so their customers can drink their juice sitting in the shade.

Later we were offered horses and carriages for a “more comfortable” journey. Likewise, one of the residents invited us on a tour of his tobacco fields and dryers, giving us a detailed explanation of his occupation.

During the hike, which included climbing one of the huge outcrops, we cut through a dozen farms, whose owners limited themselves to greeting us with smiles. Obviously they’re used to seeing tourists cutting through the middle of their property.

The town of Viñales surprised me because of the number of foreigners walking through the streets, in addition to the dozens of hotels, cafes and restaurants. The government-run hotels will have to improve a lot if they want to compete with the family-run ones.

Pinar del Rio is one of the most beautiful provinces of Cuba. Photo: Raquel Perez
It’s true that the area has a huge tourism potential, but it’s no less true that the freedom to work privately has extended the benefits to the entire population. In this case the reforms have allowed a faster and democratic distribution of wealth.

Along our path I noticed a number of newly constructed homes, other still under construction and materials in front of additional houses awaiting the start of work. From this I was able to gather that the fever to improve or expand housing doesn’t affect only Havana residents.

The unrestricted sale of building materials and the streamlining of bureaucratic procedures for getting permits is changing the face of cities and towns across the island. Many people have chosen to invest their savings in better housing.

This isn’t only about creating more space or improving the strength of their houses, people are also concerned about the aesthetics: painting their homes, building decorated walls with stones, putting up forged railings or gates, adorning their patios with fountains and potted gardens.

Seeing people getting by independently reminded me of the movie Juan de los Muertos. The main character, an ordinary Cuban, says something that synthesizes the nation’s sentiment: “The only thing I need is for them to give me a little space.”

Somehow the economic reforms seem to have become that “little space” needed by Cubans for they themselves to take care of some of their daily needs without having to resort to government support.

Social assistance will remain essential for those who have no ability to survive on their own, but it doesn’t make sense to force all the other citizens to ride in a wheelchair when people are fully capable of walking and even running.

Some time ago a journalist with the Granma newspaper accused Cubans of being nestlings with their mouths wide open waiting for the government to feed them. However, today’s reality is evidence that when given room to fly, people can become self-sufficient.
(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.


6 thoughts on “Cuba’s Reforms Seen from Viñales

  • Well, Griffin, that’s your highly-prejudiced opinion, isn’t it!

    Not only the Cuban people, but all the peoples of the world are waiting hopefully for a form of socialism which truly “works.” The problem is that the Left vanguard continues to be disoriented by Marxism, and can’t analyze the Cuban half-century as an experiment, i.e., scientifically.

    You seem to be projecting your own cynical view of human nature into the leaders of the Cuban Communist Party . . . no big surprise.

  • Has it occurred to you that the Cuban people may have had it up to here with Castro’s version of socialism and do not wish to experiment with some other screwed up variant of socialist ideology? When they finally get rid of the totalitarian dictatorships that has plagued three generations of Cubans and bankrupted the nation, they are not going to turn around and chose some more of that poison.

    As to what the Cuban Communist Party understands it is what they have to do to keep a hold on power for the ruling clique. That’s it. Power. They don’t believe in socialist Utopias anymore and they don’t believe in serving the Cuban people.

  • I am elated by this article. It shows that the small business class is developing again. This may mean the re-kindling of the Cuban socialist transformation. (What is more, it may show us in the US and elsewhere how socialism is supposed to function.)

    A interesting theoretical question arises regarding such privately-owned restaurants, juice stands and small farms in Cuba: Are these enterprises “socialistic,” or “capitalistic”? Or, more pointedly, are they forms of socialist, or capitalist property?

    The Marxian view, as I understand it, would say that they are capitalistic, in essence, i.e., forms of capitalist property. This comes from the old idea that only state-owned property is socialist, and socialist property can only be that which belongs to the state. And so, if it ain’t state-owned, it ain’t socialist.

    The cooperative republican view is quite different. We believe that any form of productive ownership under socialist state power–state, independent, or worker-cooperative–is socialist in essence, if it contributes in a constructive way toward the building of a socialist society, in compliance with the general strategic National Plan.

    According to this way of thinking, the restaurants, juice shops and small farms in Vinales, and all over Cuba, would be socialist in essence. This, even though they are privately owned.

    What I hope is that the Cuban party may come to a new understanding, and see that it is not the existence of private ownership which determines the essence of an enterprise, but the nature of the state power. This sort of new understanding would unleash the creative, productive spirit of the Cuban people, and make of Cuba a very prosperous country.

  • You are obviously having flashbacks to the late ’90’s when Fidel did exactly what you fear. He closed a large number of paladares and many of the casa particulares were unable to renew their licenses. Once the dictatorship felt comfortable nursing at the Venezuelan teet, they rolled back most of the economic reforms they had authorized, including the use of the US dollar. As it appears there is no new fairy godmother on the horizon to replace the Chavez subsidy which is now likely to decline over time.As a consequence, the Castros are probably more commited to leaving these currrent reforms in place. Different this time as well is that the Castros themselves, with one foot in the grave, are less able politically to pull back the goodies. They are literally, like the economy itself, running out of steam. One more thing, how is it POSSIBLE that you often don’t agree with me?

  • I often disagree when i read your comments Moses, but i always find your criticisms of the Cuban govt valid and worth engaging with. This one especially so. My main concern in relation to the reforms taking place in Cuba (and i view many of these reforms in a positive light) is that as soon as it suits the leadership they will undoubtedly begin to revoke and unravel the modest gains made by the average Cuban. My other concern then, is will Cubans once again allow for their small and new found liberties to be taken?

  • Fernando, I am curious to know if any of the ‘cuentapropistas’ in Vinales were Afro-Cubans? Did you ask any of these owners if they received or are currently receiving financial support from abroad to start andor sustain these businesses? Finally, what is your impression regarding the attitudinal impact of these reforms. For example, after the literacy campaign in the early ’60’s, I am told that many Cubans grew in their revolutionary spirit and their gratitude to Fidel soared. Do you believe these business owners feel the same way about Raul and Cuban socialism as it exists today?

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