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Change is in the Air

Cuba: a Society in Motion

by ROGER BURBACH

In Cuba change is in the air. But such change should not be read as an end to the revolution.

“The United States and the exile community are dead wrong if they think that regime change will take place at any time in the near future,” said Julio Diaz Vazquez, a professor at the Center for Investigations of the International Economy at the University of Havana.

Whether one talks to government and Communist party officials, university professors, or simply to people on the street, it is clear that in Cuba, socialism is very much alive and well.

Consulting Cubans

The sixth Communist Party Congress of April, 2011 proclaimed that Cuba is undertaking an “updating of the economic model,” a simple phrase that belies the 313 lineamientos (guidelines) issued to move the country forward.

“The call to update the economic model opens up a new scenario for… the Cuban economy,” said Vazquez. “Its concrete implementation will dramatically alter the national economic reality, fomenting strategic changes in the social order… and in the sociopolitical renewal of the country.”

This opening in Cuba began with the ascent of Raúl Castro, well before the 2011 party congress. Raúl became acting president in mid-2006 when his brother Fidel Castro fell ill. In February 2008 he was elected president by the National Assembly, Cuba’s legislative body. While Fidel is charismatic and perhaps the greatest revolutionary strategist of the late 20th century, Raúl has paid closer attention to organization, administration, and the rejuvenation of an economy that is largely moribund.

Already in mid-2007, as acting president, Raúl announced “the need to make structural and conceptual transformations” in Cuban socialism. Stymied by three devastating hurricanes that struck Cuba in the latter half of 2008, he assured the National Assembly at the end of that year that “none of the issues I have referred to recently have been shelved… Partial measures have been implemented as permitted by the circumstances, and progress will be made, without any hurry or excessive idealism.”

Perhaps the most important early initiative of Raúl Castro was the call for a consulta (consultation) with the Cuban people. Barrio committees, factory workers, local party organizations, and others were encouraged to meet and register their thoughts and complaints. By August 2009, 5.1 million people out of a total Cuban population of 11.2 million had participated in the consultation. There were 3.3 million registered comments of which almost half were critical.

The most recurring criticism was of limited food production and the daily problems people faced in securing three meals a day for their families. Comments on corruption in government enterprises were also prevalent.

Patricia Groog, a long-time resident of Havana of Chilean descent who works for the Inter Press Service, a news agency based in Havana, noted that in her barrio “the spontaneity and wide ranging comments were striking.” Some criticized deteriorating medical and educational facilities. One woman asserted that Cubans abroad should be able to invest in community projects. “People felt free to speak their minds without any fear of retribution,” said Groog.

Raúl Castro himself embraced the results of the consulta, saying it was an important “rehearsal” for shaping the proceedings of the 6th Party Congress.

An ‘Agrarian Revolution’

A number of important changes have already been introduced.

People are being given title to the homes they reside in, which can be exchanged and sold on the market. Apartheid tourism has been ended, meaning that Cubans can go to hotels, restaurants, clubs, and beaches once designated only for foreign tourists. One hundred and eighty one occupations such as food vendors, hair stylists, taxi drivers, tour guides, and shoe repairmen can now be licensed as trabajo por cuenta propria — self-employment or independent work.

In addition, anyone can solicit the government for 10 hectares of idle land that can be held and farmed for personal profit for 10 years with the opportunity for renewal. Agricultural produce of just about every kind is now sold in open markets in urban and rural areas alike.

Almost from the start of his government, Raúl Castro has recognized that a transformation of the agricultural economy is the key to the survival and future of the Cuban revolution. In recent years, Cuba, a country rich in agricultural resources, has imported up to 70 percent of its food needs.

Accordingly Castro has issued an urgent call for increased agricultural production and announced the distribution of idle fields and forests so that “the lands and resources are in the hands of those who are capable of efficient production.”

Under a law passed in July, 2008 over 1.2 million hectares were distributed to more than 132,000 beneficiaries by mid-2011. There has even been a notable movement of people leaving the cities to take up farming. But the gains in production have been limited. Agricultural produce for the domestic market remained largely the same in 2010 and 2011.

Armando Nova, an agricultural economist at the Center for the Study of the of Cuban Economy, said in April in Havana, “the agricultural system remains in crisis.”

He added, “We need an agrarian revolution to drive the country forward and it is still blocked. The middle level bureaucracy and even sectors of the party, particularly at the provincial level, are determined to prevent market innovations for fear of losing their status and privileges.”

Within the Revolution

Still, major shifts are occurring within the political and state apparatus. One is that the “historic leadership” of the revolution is drawing to a close with the demise of Fidel and the limits of Raul, now an octogenarian.

“A new generation is coming to the fore and it will need to act more collectively than Fidel and Raul, who synthesized the debates and controversies, acting as the final arbitrators,” says Juan Valdes Paz, a sociologist who has written on the Cuban transition. “There will never again be such an entrenched leadership.”

Legislation is now being advanced in the National Assembly that will limit all upper level government positions to two five-year terms. The National Assembly itself will also become more important as a center of debate and discussion over policies while the election of delegates to the assembly will be more competitive than in the past.

But adherence to the one party state is still justified, in part, as a defensive strategy against US intervention. “The Cuban leadership believes that if opposition political parties were permitted the US government along with the Cuban exile community would rush in to back the opposition,” says Valdes Paz.

Nevertheless, as Harlan Abrahams and Arturo Lopez-Levy note in their recent book, Raul Castro and the New Cuba, “there is an emerging convergence of people who live within the system — workers, artists, intellectuals, and students — advocating for reform.”

Such calls, according to a recent commentary by Aurelio Alonso, have led to “more discussion and polemics than ever before.”

The Sub-director of the literary magazine, Casa de las Americas, Alonso added the conversation now taking place is “broader than even during the period of revolutionary fervor in the 1960s, when the slogan was everything within the revolution, nothing outside of it.”

Roger Burbach is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) based in Berkeley, California.  Along with Michael Fox and Federico Fuentes he is the co-author of the forthcoming book, Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism. It will be released in January, 2013 by Zed Books.