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Reform From the Ground Up?

Winds of Change in Cuba

by ROGER BURBACH

Havana, Cuba.

The Cuban revolution is in a process of transition and transformation as it marks its 50th anniversary. I have visited the country every decade since the revolution’s triumph, and excepting the 60s, I have never experienced the Cuban people more open and discursive about their future. As Rafael Hernandez, the director of the widely read social and cultural journal Temas tells me, “We are rethinking the very nature of society and what socialism means. A discussion is opening up on many fronts over where we are headed, how property is to be defined, what is the role of the market, and how we can achieve greater political participation, particularly among the youth. Within the upper levels of the state and the Communist party there is real resistance to this, but the debate has been joined.”

To be sure there are many differences expressed over what the future of the revolution holds under Raul Castro who replaced his brother Fidel as president two and a half years ago. I watched Raul’s speech on the 50th anniversary on TV at a café in Old Havana with a couple I first met 16 years ago, both of whom work in the field of education. Adriana, at the end of the speech comments, “While Raul did not say much about the current moment, he presented a good summation of what have been the revolution’s advances and challenges.” She and her husband, Julio, take particular note of Raul’s words that “this is a revolution of the humble and for the humble:” The leadership “will never rob or betray this trust.”

Yaneli, the women who cooks at the house where I am staying, has a different take. As I am reading Raul’s discourse over breakfast the next morning in the official newspaper Granma, she glances over my shoulder, and I ask her what she thinks of Raul’s speech. She says “Nothing, its unimportant.” I nod, understanding how she could view Raul’s words as platitudes meaning little for her daily life. Then, as she is about to go back to the kitchen she notices a photo in the paper of a ballet performance presented before Raul’s speech that was dedicated to a political martyr of the revolution. “Ah,” she says, “one of the performers might be an instructor of my 12-year-old son who loves ballet. He has taken lessons at school since he was six and has placed first in several competitive events.”

In old Havana I am struck by the presence on the streets and cafes of gays and transvestites. They are not harassed by the police unless they sell their favors to foreigners, who tend to be Italians, according to Adriana and Julio. A toleration and discussion of sexual diversity became more wide spread in 2006 when Raul’s daughter, Mariela Castro Espin, published a special issue of the magazine she edits, “Sexology and Society.” On the inside of the cover page the very first words are: “To be homosexual, bisexual, transsexual or transvestite is not an illness or a perversity, nor does it constitute any type of offense.”

Much like the United States, many Cuban gays still feel oppressed by the mores of their society. At a book store several blocs from the Havana Libre Hotel, the old Havana Hilton of pre-revolutionary days, I meet Elieser, the 38-year-old owner of the stores’ impressive collection of new and used journals, magazines and books. I ask him what he has in the way of analytical or critical publications on the revolution. He goes to grab several boxes on the far side of the store, comes back, pushes close to me and says “You know we gays have been terribly abused and oppressed in Cuba.” I move back a bit, making it clear I am not gay, but query empathetically what he means. “We have been arrested by the scores at night and thrown in jail, even though no laws were broken.” When did this happen I ask. “In the 1970’s,” he says.

“What about now, what do you think of Raul?” He responds, “I like what he says and think he is good for Cuba.” But he then goes on to lament that in spite of the change in official attitudes a “couple of my gay friends who are teachers in schools are shunned and encounter discrimination in the classroom.”

Elieser then moves on to another point of contention in Cuba: “Most of the books I sell are in the convertible peso currency bought by foreigners like you, so I am able to get along, but I can’t change them into dollars and go to Miami. I will probably die with the United States always remaining a dream to me.” I turn and am about to leave and he says, “wait,” rushes into the back of the store and brings me out the first four issues of Temas published in 1995. He says “these are of historic importance, they were sharply attacked and criticized for being anti-revolutionary, but they paved the way for the vital political developments that are taking place now.”

The most widespread and heated discussions one hears in Havana are not over sexual rights or politics, but the economy, particularly agriculture and the availability of food stuffs in the state and public markets. I arrange an interview with Armando Nova, a leading agricultural economist at the Center of Cuban Economic Studies. As we sit outside his office on a warm sunny afternoon, he flat off declares, “Our agricultural system is in crisis. Sixty percent of the caloric intake and 62 percent of the protein consumed by the average Cuban are imported.” Cuba is a rich agricultural country, yet approximately half of its tillable agricultural land is in open pasture or lays idle.

Nova goes on to describe the agricultural reforms that were introduced in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and cut off its food exports as well as agricultural inputs from fertilizers to tractors and irrigation systems. “We encouraged urban and rural gardens for family consumption, pushed cooperatives and allowed some free marketing that helped see us through the difficult times. But the current system is an inefficient mishmash.” It is comprised of state farms, state directed cooperatives, and more autonomous cooperatives usually formed by peasants with “no one knowing from one year to the next what to expect in terms of government policies or supplies,” he says.

Added to this is the lack of an agricultural work force, as most of the Cuban rural youth who have access to free education at all levels have no interest in the long hours and back breaking labor of the fields, be it even as independent farmers. The most shocking aspect of Cuban agriculture is the collapse of sugar production. The country that served as a “sugar bowl,” first to the United States and then to the Soviet Union, today imports the high caloric sweetener to meet the needs of its people.

In an effort to remedy the situation, new legislation was passed under Raul last year that permits anyone to solicit the government for 10 hectares of idle land that can be held and farmed in usufruct, i.e., for an indefinite period of time. The new farmers have the right to work the land independently and sell their produce on the open market. But the tendency is to join a cooperative because of the availability of regularized inputs, not because the state is trying to deny them access, but because the coops have more purchasing clout.

“As of October, says Nova, there have been 80,000 petitions submitted for 800,000 hectares of land.” He is hopeful, but says “we still need to set up an open market for the distribution of inputs, which at present are allocated by the state at fixed prices.” He does not believe that all lands should be thrown open to small scale farming; there are efficiencies in state farms and state directed coops in the production of crops like sugar cane, potatoes, and perhaps some areas of beef and poultry production.

Rafael Hernandez of Temas concurs with Nova’s perspective on the need to open up the market to smaller producers in agriculture as well as commerce and industry. When I ask him if this means Cuba is moving towards the Chinese model, he responds that “a group of technocrats are bent on narrowly following in the economist tracks of the Chinese. But there are others like me who argue that political reforms have to go hand in hand with economic changes. Workers and small farmers need to participate in the discussion of what political changes they would like to see from the bottom up in the economy and the society around them. If we don’t have reforms in both areas, our socialist future will be in jeopardy.”

Alvaro Alonso, a sociologist and the assistant director of the country’s internationally renowned publishing house, Casa de las Americas, traces the current opening to experimentation back to the “Special Period” of the early 1990s. “We had a dependency on the Soviet model, not unlike that which we had before the revolution with the United States. The severe economic hardship we experienced forced us to experiment in different forms of production, and there was a greater push for political as well as economic reforms from below.”

I ask Alonso if he thinks Cuba is more open under Raul then Fidel. “Yes, but not because Fidel imposed his views and ideology on others,” he responds. “He was such a brilliant revolutionary leader and thinker that others deferred to him. They took as a starting point in their discussions or writings what he had to say. Raul is not the same commanding figure, he delegates authority, and does not dominate the political discussions. The ferment for change is widespread as our society enters a broad participatory dialogue over where we want to go.”

ROGER BURBACH is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.