In today's Cuba, time to reset the revolution

It would probably require normalising trade and diplomatic relations with the US

In today's Cuba, time to reset the revolution

That could change with the Cuban government’s eye-popping announcement last week that it will cut the government work force by 10 per cent and expects the hundreds of thousands of laid-off workers to find places in a new system that has a resemblance to free enterprise.

Could the Cuba of the not-too-distant future feature signs touting ‘Joel’s Moving Company’, ‘Dayana’s Furniture Repair’, ‘Julio’s Boutique’?

Probably. And there will be other changes, bigger and more wrenching, if harder to see. On a scale not known for half a century, Cubans will be hiring other Cubans for small-scale enterprises, creating boss-employee relationships without the direct involvement of the Communist Party. The idea of receiving a paycheck whether one loafs, sleeps or shows up at all will be under a new challenge. And it is possible that creating a cadre of quasi-capitalists could unleash forces that the Castros or their successors will prove unable to control.

But is Cuba approaching a transformation of the kind that swept Russia and China? It is tempting to imagine so, if only because the news about a move to private employment seems so startling.

Nevertheless, experts on Cuba warn against reading any such far-reaching expectations into last week’s announcement, no matter how ambitious a task it seems to recondition Cubans for a system that will require some to sink or swim.

Yes, the Castro government is acknowledging a deep problem. But it has also always linked its core ideology to its fear and disdain of the US and the American economic system. So its ferocious pursuit of independence from American economic influence — even as it denounces Washington’s embargo on trade — would make a radical shift to joining the global free-trade system that the US dominates particularly difficult to explain.
A Cuban sociologist, Haroldo Dilla, predicts that in the end the new system will not enable Cubans to rise too far out of poverty, and that the government will resist a true economic opening with the world.

Which is not to say that the leadership wants no change at all. Over the two decades since Communism collapsed in the Soviet Union, Cuban officials have visited Russia, Vietnam and China and undoubtedly have taken some lessons from each. President Raúl Castro has made it plain that he views Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reinvigorate the Soviet political system, which led to Communism’s collapse, as a cautionary tale. The mix of consumerism and authoritarianism that one finds in Vietnam and China is presumably a more palatable model — privatisation, but with the state in firm control.

Still, the plan announced so far is much more modest than what the Asian countries have done. Instead, it seems designed simply to boost Cuba’s economic productivity in small-scale enterprises and thus loosen up a state-run economy and work force that have been sputtering for more than a decade. That goal is in line with what Raúl Castro himself said last month: “We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working.”

The announcement of layoffs also does not represent the first time that Cuba has experimented with privatisation. A host of small-scale occupations is already allowed on the island, including pizza deliverymen and party clowns. And Cubans can, if they jump through enough bureaucratic hoops, open restaurants in their homes or house guests in spare bedrooms.

Dependence on sugar
It would be far more difficult for either Fidel or Raúl Castro to emulate their neighbours in the Caribbean, without challenging the basic precepts of the Cuban revolution. For decades now, many of those countries have been taking advantage of their ties to the West and the US to diversify their economies. Cuba, instead, continued to rely on one export commodity — sugar — which the Soviet Union bought at subsidised prices. Only relatively recently has it invited some European partners for joint ventures; for example, in tourism.

But a broad opening to new manufacturing, for example, would be different. That would presumably mean welcoming an influx of private capital from abroad to produce export goods on Cuban soil. It would also probably require normalising trade and diplomatic relations with the world’s biggest consumer market, the US. And it might even invite efforts to return to Cuba by exiles who still have claims on industrial enterprises they left — or were forced to leave — as enemies of the revolution.

What’s more, in China and Vietnam the path toward a modern economy was carefully coordinated with a series of steps toward normalisation of relations with the US. Could Cuba’s new economic strategy be a signal of readiness for such a package? That would be difficult to say this early. Some Cuba-watchers suggest that a mass release of political prisoners from Cuban jails in recent months is such a signal. But the history of Cuban-American communication since 1958 is rife with the misreading of oblique signals, even if the prisoner release qualifies as one.

Of course, Cuba and the US are more linked than government officials in both capitals like to admit — through family bonds, for example.

Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College who studies private enterprise in Cuba, epitomises the ambivalence with which prudent Cuba-watchers are assessing the latest news. He said he was thrilled by it, but was hedging his bets on how transformative the change would be.

“This is the beginning of what we’ve all been waiting for,” Henken said. “It’s a major change in the way the Cuban economic system will work. It will be felt by every Cuban.” But, he added, “they still want to maintain state control. We’ll see how this plays out.”

Earlier this month, when Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed Fidel Castro for The Atlantic magazine, one comment — hinting that the Cuban system wasn’t working for Cubans any more — drew the most attention. The former president later said that he had been misinterpreted, but within days came the announcement of the layoffs and the opening toward private employment.

Still, none of the power brokers in Cuba were calling this capitalism, and most close observers don’t expect them to use that word, whatever other changes unfold. “Overhauling their model does not necessarily mean they are importing ours,” was the way Julia Sweig, a Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who was at the interview, interpreted Castro’s comments.

Which brings us back to the matter of public relations, and those billboards: Even their presence could raise issues that Cuba’s economic planners probably have not fully thought through: Is a billboard company legal in the new Cuba? Would residents living along highways be able to rent out the land alongside their home for such advertising?
And, above all, could a privately run restaurant advertise that its rice and beans were better than those offered down the street by the state-run competition?

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