By Barbara Joye
“¡Cuba, si! ¡Yankee, no. ..sé!” is the joke Cubans tell each other as they try to figure out what President Obama’s plans for renewed U.S.-Cuba relations will mean for them, according to the first speaker who addressed our group of 60 Nation readers visiting Havana under the auspices of the magazine (licensed as a “people-to-people exchange”) five months after the historic announcement.
“Cuba, yes! Yankee. . . . I don’t know!” doesn’t mean that Cubans don’t know a lot about the United States, which intimately wove itself into the island’s history during two military occupations following the end of Cuba’s War of Independence, decades of economic domination, Mafia development of casinos and hotels (including the one we stayed in) and support for Batista’s dictatorship in the 1940s and 50s – not to mention the impact of US culture through movies, tourism, and not least, baseball. But despite the jubilation Obama’s announcement reportedly set off in the streets of Havana, no one knows quite what to expect.
Although everyone looks forward to the eventual end of the U.S. embargo now that Cuba is off the terrorism list, it will not be a panacea. Experts on Cuba’s economy, diplomacy, city planning (Havana) and sociology described to us many past mistakes and complex challenges that will make the next few years difficult, embargo or no.
The speakers cheerfully answered our questions and said they had no problems speaking openly – although I learned that two of them had been marginalized for a period in the 80s and 90s before being restored to favor. Most are now university professors and have studied or lectured in the Unite States. We also met with musicians (jazz and folk) and visited small NGO projects for low-income youth (soccer, crafts, hip-hop, dance), a neighborhood art project, a private classic car restoration business, the medical school, and a family-owned organic farm (40% of farms in Cuba are private and produce 60% of the homegrown food; Cuba imports 70% of its food). We ate, and drank, much better than we deserved at the private restaurants (“paladares”) that now operate on almost every block in the tourist districts.
Wandering through Old Havana, we admired the beautiful historic squares and buildings that have been restored by an NGO and the Office of the City Historian, using revenues from restaurants and other tourist facilities in the area – and observed with sadness the deplorable state of most of the remaining housing: crumbling walls, broken plumbing, dangerous wiring and dark, dank interiors. We were surprised to learn that, while 90% of apartments and houses in Cuba are owned by their occupants, no one has clear responsibility for maintaining the basic infrastructure of the old apartment buildings. Three houses collapse in Havana every day! Most people simply cannot afford to buy the materials to repair their dwellings; for example, a new window costs more than twice the average monthly salary of $20 USD. Cubans surveyed name housing as their top issue of concern.
The low salaries, not related to performance, are blamed for reducing productivity. When I inquired a couple of times about “worker democracy,” I was told that people don’t take much interest in their workplaces because improvements are not rewarded. And, there are no truly independent unions (though the United States can hardly boast of either equitable distribution of productivity increases or union strength).
“To survive in Cuba you have to have fe/faith“ goes another joke. “But FE = Familiares en el Extranjero/relatives living abroad.” Remittances from relatives in the US make an enormous difference in who can paint their house, start a small business, buy a vehicle, etc. As most of the émigrés came from the more affluent white families, especially in the first years after the revolution, this has increased the very real disparity between black and white Cubans, despite the official position that there is no racism in Cuba (and should not be). Our new hip-hop artist friends, who are dark-skinned and live in a low-income neighborhood, use their music to address racial (and gender) issues.
Rapidly growing economic inequality is a problem among the population as a whole. Progress also needs to be made on gender equality, although 40% of Cuba’s workforce, two-thirds of professionals and 49% of parliament members are women. I was surprised to learn that Cuba’s health service provides transgender surgery and that Cuba has had an annual Pride parade for each of the last six years, a far cry from the repression of earlier years, though machismo and homophobia persist.
One problem we were told not to worry about is the “succession” – what will happen when Raul Castro steps down in 2018, according to Professor and former career diplomat Carlos Alzugaray. Miguel Mario Diaz-Canel Bermudez (52), a former minister of higher education, was appointed vice president two-and-a-half years ago and is waiting in the wings. Politburo members now have a two-year term limit. A new generation of well-educated pragmatists in their 40s and 50s will take the place of the aging revolutionary leadership now in their 70s and 80s, says Alzugaray.
The main challenges facing Cuba in the next few years are economic, as they have been since the fall of the Soviet Union caused a 34% reduction in the Cuban economy. During the “special period” in the early 1990s, food, medicine, and fuel for production and even cooking as well as transportation became scarce. Malnutrition threatened the population despite rationing. Reforms encouraging foreign investment, tourism and a limited amount of private enterprise including farmers’ markets eventually lessened the crisis. The Cuban government never stopped providing free medical care, education and other safety net programs, but most people still struggle.
“We have the social development and demography of a developed country and the economic level of an underdeveloped country,” with low productivity and inefficiency, said U. of Havana economist Yaima Doimeadiós. One major demographic problem she and others pointed to is Cuba’s aging population – exacerbated by the “brain drain” as many educated youth emigrate, aided by recently reduced travel restrictions.
The country is struggling to shake off the Soviet pattern of centralized ownership and planning. “After the revolution they even nationalized the hot dog and shoeshine stands,” another speaker commented. Doimeadiós assured us that the country is committed to retaining its social supports such as free health and education – accounting for a larger portion of their GDP than in any other country – saying “we are not abandoning socialism, we are changing the type of socialism,” incorporating a role for markets. Asked if there is a country that would serve as a model, she said: “There are no real models. We want to be like Sweden, but our development is like the Dominican Republic.”
In recent years, Cuba has opened to more foreign investment and moved to increase efficiency in the public sector, reducing public employment by 10% through layoffs (“labor reorganization”) and beginning to convert less efficient public enterprises to cooperatives. People have also moved on their own from public employment to the 201 types of private enterprises now permitted, especially tourism services such as restaurants and taxis. Some 25-30% of the workforce is now not employed by the government.
Other major changes expected soon include devaluing the peso and eliminating Cuba’s dual currency, in which enterprises and tourists use one type of peso equal to approximately $1 USD while ordinary Cubans and households use another in which 24 pesos = $1 USD (a disincentive to imports and the cause of many other problems). This will have some painful short-term results – 20% of enterprises could fail, although about 62% are expected to benefit, and the deficit would increase, Doimeadiós said.
The big question was framed by one of our group: “Most of us, and I believe most other U.S. tourists here, came now to see Cuba before ‘we’ destroy it! What do you think will happen?” The responses were cautiously optimistic. Tourists from the United States, Canada and Europe already swarm in Old Havana; the immediate concern is how to add more facilities fast enough. Corporations from other countries are already investing in Cuba, and the country is not opening its economy with its eyes closed. “We need a slow process of change, to deal with our ‘irregularities,’ “ says Doimeadiós. “We want to be ‘normal.’”
“Normalization [of U.S.-Cuba relations] is not the absence of conflict, it’s agreement on the rules of the game and non-interference in each others’ internal affairs,” says Alzugaray. Of course, there are many thorny issues to be resolved, such as the status of Guantanamo and Radio Marti/TeleMarti.
Cuba, though beautiful, is not a paradise. Although the intellectuals, entrepreneurs and artists we mostly interacted with are sophisticated and well-informed, the only time I saw any newspaper – Granma, the government publication – outside of an opulent hotel was as it was being shredded for a children’s papier maché project. Internet access ranges from expensive (same hotel) to unreliable to nonexistent for most people. For a news junkie like me, this was . . . different.
But the Cubans are an exuberant, creative people despite their many years of hardship, proud of their culture and very friendly to visitors from the United States. “This is the only country that prefers Americans to Canadians,” said one Nation staffer. “The Canadians have always been here, but they come for the sun and the beaches. The Americans are like you.” So take a Nation trip, or the equivalent. Ask questions, they love to answer.
Barbara Joye is recording secretary of Metro Atlanta DSA and a member of DSA’s National Political Committee.
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