Snags to Change in Cuba

Fernando Ravsberg

Photo by Ihosvanny.

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 24 — At the end of January, a young Cuban worker was arrested at her job for stealing a daypack full of food.  She spent the whole night in a cell, was fired from her company and had to pay a fine of 2,000 pesos.

This past weekend I thought about her when I was reading the island’s official newspaper, Granma. In the paper was the response by the Ministry of Agriculture to accusations by campesinos that officials had blocked the distribution of idle land.

Granma reported that measures had been taken to punish the offenders, with the most “severe” being suspended from duty for six months.  The rest were “admonished” (meaning they received a simple scolding to make them behave better in the future).

I don’t want to go into the application of the law, but it seems disproportionate that a worker is punished for petty theft much more severely than those who acted against the food security of the entire nation.

With only the threat of similar “admonishments,” it’s not strange that in the same newspaper another letter from agricultural workers was published criticizing ministry officials for consciously allowing their crops to rot in the fields.

The article asserted that “the workers are indignant” because yucca plants are rotting in the field and those who are managing the operations are acting to prevent these from being harvested.  And if that wasn’t enough, the workers are saying that the union has washed its hands of the whole matter.

Surely in one month — when the “exhaustive investigation” into this new case is concluded — there will appear yet another “mea culpa” in which it’s reported to the public that the leaders will be admonished…yet they’ll remain in command.

Speeches about heavier punishiment for leaders

I reread Raul Castro’s latest speeches just in case I hadn’t understood them correctly the first time, but I found the exact sentence where he said that any official who lies “should be removed permanently — not temporarily — from the position they occupy.”

Amid the current wave of layoffs, it’s curious that the inefficiency of officials is not being taken advantage of to deflate the overblown government payrolls.  This would kill two birds with one stone: agriculture production would be freed of dead weight and it would decrease the number of government employees.

A friend of mine who’s a small farmer recommends “rewarding” these officials with fallow land so that they could work these with their own hands.  Behind that campesino’s contemptuous laugh he assured me that “after they bend their backs under the baking sun, they’ll stop letting crops go bad.”

You don’t need to be a Nostradamus to predict that the bureaucracy will continue undermining changes, because it’s evident that these would affect the economic interests and privileges that the current model affords them.

The greatest weakness in the reform initiative lies in the fact that the bureaucrats are in charge of its application, control, the establishment of norms, setting timelines, specifying procedures and deciding on punishment when “shortcomings” are discovered.

In this way, sabotaging transformation doesn’t imply great risk; after all, the worst one can get is a scolding.  In any case, had some official harbored any fears previously, these must have vanished when they read in the official newspaper about the types of punishment being applied.

The country has now gone through two years of declining agricultural production, though a researcher with the Center for Studies of the Economy, Pavel Vidal, highlights that “the current key to economic reform in Cuba is agriculture (…).  If the reform in agriculture fails, the entire program of reform will fail.”

President Raul Castro recognized that “the time we have left is short and the task gigantic.”  The bureaucracy knows this, and it seems to be waging a war of attrition: putting the brakes on any change while waiting for the “historical leadership” to die off.

If they succeed in the failure of the reform, the economy will collapse and the transformation of bureaucrats into the owners of the companies and farms will be seen as the sole alternative to the resulting chaos.  They’ll have a good mirror in the countries of Eastern Europe.

Recently the singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez alerted the youth: “The difficulties in the path of change — which fortunately we have begun to pursue — are not in fact the changes themselves, but that these can be delayed by bureaucratic traps.”

Havana Times translation of the Spanish original authorized by BBC Mundo.