Has the Cuban Government Gone Soft?

 Recapping three key events of 2018 in Cuba

By Chris Vazquez

Foto: Raidel Lescano

HAVANA TIMES – Fearing that the growth of the private sector had gotten out of hand, former Cuban President Raul Castro, the current leader of the Communist Party, announced in August of 2017 that the issuance of new licenses for casas particulares (bed & breakfasts), paladares (restaurants), and other private businesses would be frozen until new regulations could be drawn up that would curb suspected illegal activity, such as tax evasion and black market buying and selling.

The real reason behind increased restrictions? To prevent the accumulation of wealth and mitigate the success of the Cuban private sector.

When the proposed regulations finally came out in July 2018, almost a year after the freeze on new business licenses, the proposed list of restrictions loomed so large that people began to pack up shop and turn in their business licenses before they were to take effect on December 7th.

The numbers just didn’t make sense anymore. Under the new rules, Cubans working in the private sector would only be allowed to carry a single license, effectively limiting them to one of the newly consolidated approved categories. The result is that a taxi driver or barber would be prohibited from also renting out their home on Airbnb.

Additionally, restaurants would be limited to no more than 50 chairs, business owners would be required to keep 80% of their earnings in a Cuban bank account for tax purposes, an increasing wage tax would be implemented after the fifth worker hired, the tax burden on businesses with over 20 employees would become astronomical, and on and on they went…

There was another law hidden in this long list of proposed regulations. Known simply as Decree 349, this one focused on artists instead of entrepreneurs. Broadly reaching and vaguely worded, the decree would prevent artists in any discipline from displaying their work in public or private spaces without prior government approval.

Photo: Paton Fernandez

Individuals or businesses that hired artists who had not received the proper authorization could be sanctioned, and unapproved artists would risk substantial fines and the possible confiscation of their materials.

Under the proposed law, government-appointed inspectors would be empowered to swiftly suspend artistic performances they subjectively deemed tasteless or counter-revolutionary, even recommending the cancellation of artistic licenses at their discretion.

The only recourse for artists and businesses would be to appeal the cancellations to the Ministry of Culture, the same institution that appoints the inspectors. Consequently, this would put disproportionate power in the hands of the official inspectors to limit the scope of artistic expression on the island.

Unlike the defeated entrepreneurs who turned in their business licenses fearing the worst, the independent artists of Cuba responded swiftly to Decree 349 with unified protests, social media campaigns, and artistic displays of defiance, elevating the proposed measure to an international human rights issue.

The Cuban government initially responded by attempting to ignore the issue, hoping tensions would ease once the law went into effect and everyone fell in line as is typically the case in Cuba. But as Decree 349 continued to make global headlines, with groups like the United Nations and Amnesty International speaking out against it, the government chose retaliation, and retaliate it did. What ensued was a nationwide campaign of slanderous propaganda and brute censorship.

The harsh response and lack of dialogue from the Cuban government made it clear they weren’t going to budge. But it also prompted action from several prominent figures within the Cuban artistic community. Even well-known revolutionary loyalists like famed singer Silvio Rodriguez and renowned actor Luis Alberto Garcia took to the web to voice their discontent with Decree 349 and the state’s unwillingness to bend to the will of its people.

As put by University of Florida professor Coco Fusco in her conversation with the Miami Herald, “This degree of variety and openness in the expressions of dissent by island-based Cuban artists and intellectuals had not been seen in decades.” Nevertheless, the Cuban government did not waver. Public defamation and arbitrary detentions of artists by Cuban police remained the norm in the weeks leading up to December 7th.

Ilustración por Yasser Castellanos

Monday, December 3rd saw the arrest and detention of a host of prominent Cuban artists attempting to hold a week-long protest outside the Ministry of Culture that would include artistic performances and displays in defiance of Decree 349.

Acclaimed artist Tania Bruguera, who was among the detainees, vowed to go on thirst and hunger strike if not released. Although the detentions turned out to be short (unlike in the old days), it had seemed like the clash between the Cuban government and the artistic community had reached its peak.

Then, all of a sudden, everything seemed to shift. In a welcome pivot from recent months, the state began to backtrack, and we saw a side of the Cuban government not seen in recent memory. What follows is a summary of the 3 times Cuba blinked as December 7th approached:

(1)  Cuba Extends Internet Access to Mobile Phones

The evening of Tuesday, December 4th saw cheering in Havana, as state telecommunications monopoly ETECSA announced that it would be rolling out 3G internet service for mobile phones. The service would cost about ten cents per megabyte, “with packages ranging from 600 megabytes for about $7 to four gigabytes for about $30,” according to the Associated Press. This was welcome news for Cuba’s approximately 5 million cell phone users, who until now had relied on the island’s hundreds of public WiFi parks and plazas.

While the announcement of mobile internet was a long awaited and much needed development, the timing of its implementation seemed rather curious. ETECSA vice president Tania Velazquez stated the new service would be available beginning on Thursday, December 6th – just one day before Decree 349 and the new regulations on private businesses were set to go into effect.

(2) Cuba Rolls Back Regulations on Private Business

Just one day after the announcement of 3G internet, Cuban government officials appeared on the Mesa Redonda TV program on the night of Wednesday, December 5th to announce significant changes to the private business regulations that were set to take effect at the end of the week.

In a departure from the originally staunch restrictions, state officials announced that  cuentapropistas would be allowed to hold multiple business licenses, citing the government’s desire not to impede the growth of the private sector as it continues to modernize its socialist economy.

Restaurant owners rejoiced as they learned that they would not be constrained by a 50 seat capacity, allowing them to serve as many patrons as they wish. Finally, the minimum amount of earnings required by business owners to be kept in a specially designated account for tax purposes was lowered from 80% to 65%, equivalent to two months’ worth of taxes as opposed to three. The watered-down restrictions on private enterprise would go into effect two days later on Friday, December 7th.

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Soon after the writing of this article, the Cuban government announced the removal of a clause in the new draft Constitution containing language that would have likely paved the way for same sex marriage on the island.

This development can be attributed primarily to the unified push-back from the Cuban religious community to the proposed change. Again Cuban society appears to bend the will of the state.

However, the National Assembly also reinserted communism as the aspiration for Cuban society as they revised the Constitution, citing public feedback as the catalyst for the move, a difficult assertion to believe. With no method for verification, the state appears to have its way, unchallenged.

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(3)  The Government Delays the Implementation of Decree 349

If the announcement of 3G internet on Tuesday was a victory for consumers and the weakening of regulations on cuentapropistas on Wednesday was a win for business owners, then what happened next was a triumph for Cuban artists.

The Mesa Redonda program on Friday night brought a step backward in of the vilified Decree 349 by the Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso Grau, who said authorities would seek feedback from independent artists nationwide to determine how to best enforce the decree. Until then, the law would be implemented slowly to both state and private sectors.

Cultural events could also only be discontinued by a group of officials rather than a single inspector. Joining Grau on the program was Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas, who explained that more detailed regulations would soon be announced to better clarify the nature of the law and to emphasize that artistic expression is not the target. Until their release, however, inspectors would not begin enforcement actions. Cuban artists celebrated across the island, and for the first time in a very long time it felt like civic activism was influencing the will of the state.

So, back to the original question: Has the Cuban government indeed gone soft? Or, rather, is this an attempt by the powers that be to coat vinegar with honey as they tighten controls on the Cuban private sector and artistic community on the island.

Is the state truly being receptive to the concerns of its citizens, or is it simply creating an illusion of democracy to maintain peace and order while it tightens its grip?

This begs the question of whether the concessions made to appease the Cuban people leading up to the implementation of regulations that will be to their detriment should be considered a victory to be celebrated or a crushing defeat; only time will tell.
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Sources:

Other articles by Chris Vazquez:

Havana is Not your Hipster Playground

Cuba: Trouble in Paradise

 



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