HAVANA TIMES, August 5 — I found very interesting this latest meeting of the National Assembly of Popular Power (Cuban parliament). The speech by President Raul Castro begins to define the direction and rules of the game, something that many citizens have requested.
I believe that the best news for ordinary Cubans is the expansion of self-employment “as an additional alternative for the employment of surplus workers.” This opportunity will be brought about by the elimination of several prohibitions now in effect.
However, the measure comes accompanied by a phrase that should not go overlooked: “a relaxation of work force hiring.” This will allow many in the self-employment sector to undergo a qualitative transformation and become small private businesspeople.
Up to now this was practically forbidden; previously, Cuban laws even specified that self-employment activities would permit only the family members of those holding licenses to work within these small and necessarily mom-and-pop operations, with this having the obvious aim of limiting the growth of such businesses.
A few months ago changes began to be seen. I remember interviewing a Cuban brick manufacturer who told me that he had a “mixed company,” whereby the government supplies him with the raw materials, he would produce the bricks and then the product would distributed.
The new policy favors the creation of small companies, which could fill the gaps in an economy characterized by layers of planning but a lack of efficiency. In addition, this could absorb a million unemployed resulting from the forthcoming reorganization of the public sector.
Structural change or ‘adaptations’
Raul Castro specified that these changes are not attempts to move in the direction of capitalism, though he recognized that the reforms “in themselves constitute a structural and conceptual change” for “the development our social system and for making it sustainable in the future.”
The fact that Cuba’s maximum leaders continue to advocate socialism is no surprise to anybody. What is remarkable is the fact that they apparently all accept the idea that the system requires deep changes for its very existence.
Notwithstanding, later they tell us that these are not changes but a simple adaptations, a position that curiously coincides with the anti-Castro forces in Miami. Some of these reforms appear to be faithful to socialism of the 20th century, while others demonstrate Cuba’s political intransigence.
As Economy Minister Marino Murillo explained to my journalist colleagues, “One cannot speak of reform.” Apparently —despite proposals around service cooperatives, the expansion of private wage-labor and the permitting of small companies— the correct thing to say is “the updating of the Cuban model.”
He reminded me of another minister who publically complained because at BBC Mundo we spoke of “land reform.” This seems some odd rejection of an old rallying cry of the left, and even much more so when they’re now in the process of changing the control of 50 percent of the country’s arable land.
The other interesting announcement is that the Political Economic Commission of the Communist Party is working full time in preparation for the Sixth Congress, and that its policy document will be put up for discussion among not only party activists but also by the public.
Mixed and not-so-mixed messages
Raul Castro again repeated: “Our unity is more solid today than ever, and it is not the fruit of false unanimity or opportunist posturing. Unity does not exclude honest discrepancies; rather, it presupposes the discussion of ideas.”
Nonetheless, this leaves me thinking of Professor Esteban Morales, the longtime Party activist who was recently “separated from the organization” for publishing an article in which he warned of the threat to socialism implied by the existence of corrupt leaders.
The contradiction —whether real or apparent— will make many people take pause. However, I have the impression that the answer is personal and it should be sought in each citizen, remembering that what is being debated is the future of their nation, the Cuba that they will leave to their children and grandchildren.
Where there was in fact not the smallest doubt was Raul Castro’s position regarding dissident groups. “There will be no impunity for the enemies of the homeland, for those who try to endanger our independence. Let nobody be deceived,” he said.
Likewise, he specified that public acts by the opposition would not be allowed: “The defense of our sacred achievements, of our streets and plazas, will continue being the prime duty of revolutionaries whom we cannot deprive of that right.”
Thus, changes will continue slowly and cautiously – but they won’t stop. In the economic terrain they have already broken through the rigid limits imposed in 1968. The national debate will be on how to save socialism, and therefore there will be no political reforms.
Havana Times translation of the Spanish original authorized by BBC Mundo.