• The objective of this Blog is to facilitate access to research resources and analyses from all relevant and useful sources, mainly on the economy of Cuba. It includes analyses and observations of the author, Arch Ritter, as well as hyper-links, abstracts, summaries, and commentaries relating to other research works from academic, governmental, media, non-governmental organizations and international institutions.
    Commentary, critique and discussion on any of the postings is most welcome.
    This Blog on The Cuban Economy is dedicated to Cuba's Generation "A". Although inspired by Yoani Sánchez' original blog "Generation Y" this is not dedicated to those with names starting with the letter "A". Instead, it draws from Douglas Coupland's novel Generation A which begins with a quotation from Kurt Vonnegut at a University Commencement:
    "... I hereby declare you Generation A, as much as the beginning of a series of astounding triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago."

Yoani Sánchez on the January 28 Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba

Original Essay in Generacion Y here:  “Conference Rhymes With Patience” (…well in Spanish it does…)

This January seems like an October, a July, a November, anything other than the first month of the year. If anything characterizes beginnings it is making plans, projecting what is to come, outlining proposals even later if they aren’t completed. But because we grew up among so many slogans forecasting the future, today we resist talking about tomorrow. Exhausted from imagining a distant future that could be delayed five years or a decade, we no longer want to even predict the coming week. So we focus on this minute, on an immediacy that doesn’t allow us to raise our sights to look ahead. We live in the moment, because for too long they made us wish for a far off time that existed only in their speeches, in the pages of their books.

The next Communist Party Conference is also marked by this skepticism toward the future. Not surprising, then, are the low expectations Cubans show regarding a party meeting on January 28, the little that is said about it in the streets. The trifling comments are limited to an assurance that “this isn’t going to change anything,” or the glimmer of hope that “this will be the last chance for the ‘historic generation’.” Less than three weeks before it begins, even the official television isn’t showing any enthusiasm for the event. In the ranks of the Party itself there are many illusions and more than one militant will turn in his or her party card if the meeting ends with poor results. The time “purchased” last April during the Party Congress is about to end. The political reforms are urgent and even the system’s most faithful have begun to despair.

The most improbable, and yet the most desired, is that in this conference the first priority would be to put the nation ahead of partisan interests. But this would be asking the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) to commit suicide… and they are not going to do that. They are not going to open themselves to citizen participation without exclusions, nor are they going to dismantle the criminalization of disagreement. They bet their power on it. The reforms would have to be so clear, the change in discourse so marked, that instead of simple adjustments they would need to erase the slate and start again… and most likely they will refuse to do that. So, for a long time January hasn’t seemed like January, the Revolutionaries don’t behave that way and the future is a subject only for soothsayers and fortune-tellers.

Yoani Sánchez

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From Canada’s Conservative Government: More “Constructive Engagement”

The Canadian Press, 9 September 2012

OTTAWA — The Conservative minister for Latin America is softening some of the Harper government’s previous tough talk on Cuba.

This week, Diane Ablonczy, the junior foreign minister for the Americas, visits the communist Caribbean island — which, at 135 kilometres from the southern tip of Florida, is both the closest sworn enemy of the United States and the favoured vacation choice of a million sun-seeking Canadians each year.

Ablonczy praises the ongoing economic reforms that Cuban President Raul Castro has instituted — opening up private property ownership, new opportunity to hold select private sector jobs, the right to sell a used car — since he took over the country from his legendary and ailing brother, Fidel, almost four years ago. “We see a very significant process of economic reform and liberalization in Cuba,” Ablonczy told The Canadian Press in a pre-trip interview.

Ablonczy does not necessarily believe this will lead to greater democratic freedoms any time soon in a country where the government exerts Soviet-era control over its 11 million citizens. “Political change is not what Cuban leadership has in mind,” she said. “There’s a lot of debate around these things and there’s a lot of caution too. But Canada, as an investor in Cuba, with lots of people-to-people contact, wants to play as positive and constructive role as possible.”

Ablonczy said Canada stands ready to share experiences and best practices “as Cuba moves forward, very gradually, towards some needed changes and modernization.”

Her comments are a marked departure from the language employed by one of her predecessors in the portfolio, Peter Kent, who publicly chided the Castro regime on its human rights record almost three years ago. His comments prompted Havana to rescind an invitation to visit in the spring of 2009. Kent eventually travelled to Cuba in late 2009, and he reported a successful visit that included discussions on trade and human rights.

Cuba is Canada’s largest market in the Caribbean and Central American region, with two-way trade topping $1 billion in 2010. A Canadian oil and gas company, Sherritt International, is the largest foreign investor in Cuba.

Ablonczy, who has travelled widely in the region since her appointment last May, said she wants to form meaningful working relationships with her Cuban counterparts. She said it’s important to be very respectful of her hosts and “what they want to achieve and their own goals and objectives.”

A leading voice in Canada’s non-governmental agency community agreed there is opportunity for the government to have a meaningful impact on reform in Cuba. Robert Fox, head of Oxfam Canada, recently concluded his own working tour of projects in Cuba and said there is good progress being made in municipal governance and in opening up the farming sector to more local participation. That might not sound like much, but both are significant developments in Cuba, where the Castro regime allows no political dissent and virtually no capitalism.

Municipal councils are meeting and coming up with ideas on how they want to live in their communities, within the constraints of the central government’s edicts, said Fox. “In a country like Cuba, a decentralizing dynamic is also a democratizing dynamic.”

Meanwhile, Cuban farmers are working on ways to grow and sell local products locally — a significant step in a country that, despite massive swaths of fertile countryside, still imports most of its food. “Canada continues to be seen in a positive way in Cuba. Canada has never conditioned its aid to Cuba. Cubans are very aware that there are a million Canadians who come to their country every year,” said Fox.

“When we look to the changes in Cuba in terms of opening up to local markets and opening up to global markets, when we look to women’s leadership and gender equality, when we look to municipal governments and local authorities, when we look to the co-op movement — which are all areas that Cubans are taking to a new level — those are all areas where Canada has huge strengths, huge capacity.”

Canadian embassy diplomats in Havana expressed interest to Fox about strengthening municipal authorities and the agricultural sector. Ablonczy said Canada does have expertise to offer in those areas but she said she would wait to see what topics her Cuban hosts raise with her. Canada, she said, does not have all the answers and won’t “take a lecturing approach.”

Ablonczy is expected to have meetings with Cuba’s ministers for foreign affairs, trade and tourism, as well as paying visits to Canadian-funded aid projects. She will also visit Panama and Guatemala in the coming week as well.

Overall, Ablonczy is a staunch defender of her government’s efforts to open up economic opportunities throughout the region, even if it means trading and doing business with governments that have less-than-stellar rights records.

She said engagement can contribute to “important human rights advancement in these countries, providing the economic opportunity that is often key for people breaking free from tyranny and oppression… “We’ve taken a very strong stand on wanting to be an active and positive force while being very clear about our concerns and our desire to see human rights continually addressed and advanced in all countries, including our own.”

Minister of State of Foreign Affairs Diane Ablonczy

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Espacio Laical: Debate on the Future of the Communist Party of Cuba

Espacio Laical has published a debate on the future of the Communist Party in Cuba. The full document is located here: Espacio Laical, EL PRESENTE Y EL FUTURO DEL PARTIDO COMUNISTA DE CUBA.

This discussion is courageous and challenging, as it pushes the realm of public discussion of political issues further along. Espacio Laical makes a valuable contribution to political discussion in Cuba. The concluding commentary and some questions from Lenier Gonzalez are included below as well. It is worth a careful reading., but unfortunately it is available only in Spanish at this time.

A DEBATE EL PRESENTE Y EL FUTURO DEL PARTIDO COMUNISTA DE CUBA

Próximamente se celebrará la Primera Conferencia Nacional del PCC, institución que tiene a su cargo, según la constitución vigente, orientar y dirigir al Estado y a la sociedad. Este acontecimiento ocurrirá en un momento de especial trascendencia para la nación cubana, porque de sus entrañas –hoy mismo- emanan los más diversos imaginarios acerca de hacia dónde, y de qué manera, se deben conducir los destinos del país. Por esta razón, la revista Espacio Laical ha convocado a un grupo de analistas para que ofrezcan sus criterios al respecto. Estos son: Víctor Fowler, poeta y ensayista; Orlando Márquez, director de la revista Palabra Nueva; Ovidio D´Angelo, investigador social; Alexis Pestano, miembro del Consejo Editorial de la revista Espacio Laical; Ariel Dacal, educador popular; y Lenier González, vice-editor de la revista Espacio Laical.


Lenier González,, Ariel Ducal, Ovidio D´Angelo, Orlando Márquez y Víctor Fowler

Lenier González:

Si nos atenemos a las contradicciones, dogmatismos e incongruencias contenidas en el Documento Base, no creo que la Conferencia esté en condiciones de replantearse el papel del PCC de cara al presente y al futuro de Cuba. Sin embargo, seguramente de la Conferencia saldrán líneas de acción para perfeccionar algunos aspectos del funcionamiento del PCC, pero sin constituir cauces programáticos para reconstruir y relanzar su hegemonía política.

Esto sería realmente lamentable, pues la llamada generación histórica que hizo la Revolución cubana, y específicamente el presidente Raúl Castro, tienen las condiciones materiales y simbólicas necesarias para desatar y llevar a vías de éxito un proceso de este tipo. Toda reforma que aspire a ser exitosa necesita de una fuerza política que cumpla el cometido de construir consensos en torno a un proyecto común. El éxito de las reformas del presidente Raúl Castro y su continuidad en el tiempo dependen de la capacidad que tenga el actual gobierno de concertar a toda la diversidad nacional en su seno. Un partido político renovado, inclusivo y aglutinador de los más amplios intereses nacionales sería una garantía para la estabilidad nacional y el éxito de las transformaciones en curso. El redimensionamiento y democratización interna del PCC -con el consecuente ensanchamiento de la participación ciudadana- es el gran tema pendiente en la agenda del presidente Raúl Castro. Y en ello podría radicar el éxito de su mandato.

Además, no podemos desestimar el gran costo político que tendría para el gobierno no atender de manera suficiente el anhelo generalizado de democratización del sistema político. Un amplísimo sector nacional percibe a la Conferencia del PCC como la última oportunidad de la generación histórica para moverse en ese sentido. Por tanto, desestimar este anhelo de seguro impactará con fuerza sobre el campo político cubano. Es muy probable que de no darse cambios en ese sentido, el amplio sector moderado-reformista, cansado ya de esperar hasta la eternidad, verá cómo se vacían sus filas definitivamente. Ello quizá no provocará un fortalecimiento de la disidencia interna, pero sí propiciará gran frustración, apatía y distanciamiento en las fuerzas vivas nacionales del gobierno cubano. Para ese entonces, al gobierno le será ya muy difícil reconectarse nuevamente con estos sectores.

¿Será capaz el gobierno cubano de propiciar un debate abierto y horizontal donde las fuerzas patrióticas puedan consensuar libremente un “proyecto de país” en el que quepamos todos?

¿Será capaz la Conferencia del PCC de reinventar, con creatividad, la rigidez actual de los marcos que dictan qué es revolucionario y qué contrarrevolucionario?

¿Podrá el gobierno cubano implementar reformas modernizadoras que conjuren definitivamente la posibilidad de un escenario de desestabilización interna y una potencial (e inaceptable) intervención militar extranjera en Cuba?

¿Seremos capaces los cubanos de acompañar un camino de reformas graduales y ordenadas si el actual gobierno cubano (o sus sucesores) iniciasen esta gestión de forma seria y responsable?

Como ciudadano comprometido con los destinos de mi patria, aspiro a que la Conferencia del PCC y el presidente Raúl Castro asuman sin dilaciones esta responsabilidad histórica y salden este desafío (enorme) satisfactoriamente, por el bien de Cuba y de los todos los cubanos.

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Cuba in the Economist Intelligence Unit, “Democracy Index 2011: Democracy Under Stress”

The Economist intelligence Unit recently published its annual White paper on Democracy in the World. The full report is available here: Economist Intelligence Unit, Democracy_Index_December_2011

As expected, Cuba fares poorly in this international comparison of participatory democracy, placing last in Latin America and #126 of 167 countries internationally, with an “authoritarian” label, the only one in Latin America.

The EIU Index is about as rigorous as they come, including 60 indicators five general dimensions, namely electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. The basic EIU definition of democracy and methodology is outlined below together with a description of the results for Latin America and a Table of the Latin American results.

The Economist Intelligence Unit measure

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s democracy index is based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. The five categories are inter-related and form a coherent conceptual whole. The condition of having free and fair competitive elections, and satisfying related aspects of political freedom, is clearly the sine quo none of all definitions. All modern definitions, except the most minimalist, also consider civil liberties to be a vital component of what is often called “liberal democracy”. The principle of the protection of basic human rights is widely accepted. It is embodied in constitutions throughout the world as well as in the UN Charter and international agreements such as the Helsinki Final Act (the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe).

Basic human rights include the freedom of speech, expression and the press, freedom of religion; freedom of assembly and association; and the right to due judicial process. All democracies are systems in which citizens freely make political decisions by majority rule. But rule by the majority is not necessarily democratic. In a democracy majority rule must be combined with guarantees of individual human rights and the rights of minorities. Most measures also include aspects of the minimum quality of functioning of government. If democratically-based decisions cannot or are not implemented then the concept of democracy is not very meaningful or it becomes an empty shell. Democracy is more than the sum of its institutions. A democratic political culture is also crucial for the legitimacy, smooth functioning and ultimately the sustainability of democracy. A culture of passivity and apathy, an obedient and docile citizenry, are not consistent with democracy. The electoral process periodically divides the population into winners and losers. A successful democratic political culture implies that the losing parties and their supporters accept the judgment of the voters, and allow for the peaceful transfer of power.

Participation is also a necessary component, as apathy and abstention are enemies of democracy. Even measures that focus predominantly on the processes of representative, liberal democracy include (although inadequately or insufficiently) some aspects of participation. In a democracy, government is only one element in a social fabric of many and varied institutions, political organisations, and associations. Citizens cannot be required to take part in the political process, and they are free to express their dissatisfaction by not participating. However, a healthy democracy requires the active, freely chosen participation of citizens in public life. Democracies flourish when citizens are willing to participate in public debate, elect representatives and join political parties. Without this broad, sustaining participation, democracy begins to wither and become the preserve of small, select groups. At the same time, even our “thicker”, more inclusive and wider measure of democracy does not include other aspects–which some authors argue are also crucial components of democracy–such as levels of economic and social well being. Thus our Index respects the dominant tradition that holds that a variety of social and economic outcomes can be consistent with political democracy, which is a separate concept.

Methodology

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s index of democracy, on a 0 to 10 scale, is based on the ratings for 60 indicators grouped in five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Each category has a rating on a 0 to 10 scale, and the overall index of democracy is the simple average of the five category indexes. The category indexes are based on the sum of the indicator scores in the category, converted to a 0 to 10 scale. Adjustments to the category scores are made if countries do not score a 1 in the following critical areas for democracy:

1. whether national elections are free and fair

2. the security of voters

3. the influence of foreign powers on government

4. the capability of the civil service to implement policies.  …..

Full democracies: Countries in which not only basic political freedoms and civil liberties are respected, but these will also tend to be underpinned by a political culture conducive to the flourishing of democracy. The functioning of government is satisfactory. Media are independent and diverse. There is an effective system of checks and balances. The judiciary is independent and judicial decisions are enforced. There are only limited problems in the functioning of democracies.

Flawed democracies: These countries also have free and fair elections and even if there are problems (such as infringements on media freedom), basic civil liberties will be respected. However, there are significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, including problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation.

Hybrid regimes: Elections have substantial irregularities that often prevent them from being both free and fair. Government pressure on opposition parties and candidates may be common. Serious weaknesses are more prevalent than in flawed democracies–in political culture, functioning of government and political participation. Corruption tends to be widespread and the rule of law is weak. Civil society is weak. Typically there is harassment of and pressure on journalists, and the judiciary is not independent.

Authoritarian regimes: In these states state political pluralism is absent or heavily circumscribed. Many countries in this category are outright dictatorships. Some formal institutions of democracy may exist, but these have little substance. Elections, if they do occur, are not free and fair. There is disregard for abuses and infringements of civil liberties. Media are typically state-owned or controlled by groups connected to the ruling regime. There is repression of criticism of the government and pervasive censorship. There is no independent judiciary.

Latin America

There was little change in this region between 2010 and 2011. The average score for the region declined slightly in 2011 as rampant crime in some countries—in particular, violence and drug-trafficking—continues to have a negative impact. In most countries free and fair elections are now well established. The recent evidence from surveys on attitudes towards democracy is mixed. In some countries, surveys indicate a slow shift in public attitudes on many issues in a direction that is conducive to democracy. However, a recent UNDP report (UNDP 2011) found that the sustainability of democracy in Latin America is being endangered by the concentration of power, the world´s highest social and economic inequalities, and mounting insecurity and violence. While most Latin American countries (14 out of 24) fall within the flawed democracy category, there is wide diversity across the region. For example, Uruguay is a full democracy with an index score of 8.17 (out of 10) and a global ranking of 17th, while Cuba, an authoritarian regime, ranks 126th.

Although the region was adversely affected by the 2008-09 recession—with the US-dependent

Central American and Caribbean sub-regions hit particularly badly—most countries avoided social unrest and a rolling back of democracy. However, a key issue that is undermining democracy in much of the region is an upsurge in violent crime, linked in large part with the drug trade. The corrupting influence of organised crime and its ability to undermine the effectiveness of the security forces and the judicial authorities are a serious problem.

Electoral democracy, for the most part, remains firmly entrenched in Latin America, but media freedoms have been eroded in recent years in several countries. Aside from Cuba (the only state in the region without any independent media), Venezuela has been the worst offender. The failure to uphold press freedom in some countries in the region in part reflects inadequate oversight bodies—a symptom of broader institutional weaknesses in Latin America. The executive remains very strong in many countries, the legislature is comparatively weak in many cases and most judiciaries suffer from some degree of politicization.

National Assembly, Cuba

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Melissa Lockhart, “After dramatic 2011 in Cuba, will US-Cuban policy shift in 2012?”

Melissa Lockhart reviews a year of what she calls big change in Cuba, little change in US policy. From the Christian Science Monitor. http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/ December 29, 2011

This year in Cuban history will be viewed as a significant one, having seen more economic change and reform on the island than some entire decades. Yet Washington’s response has been minimal.

Let’s start with a brief summary of the past year. In January 2011, the executive branch of the US government announced and published new travel and remittance rules with respect to Cuba, which increased possibilities for people-to-people travel. The effect has been gradual (OFAC in the Treasury is under-staffed and really quite slow), but greater numbers of cultural travel groups have received the necessary licenses and are leading trips to the island because of the new rules.

February and March saw the trial of the infamous violent Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles, and a historic step in the US to prosecute him for terrorist acts in Cuba (he was later acquitted, to the chagrin of many Cuba-watchers). Alan Gross, the USAID contractor who remains in jail in Cuba, was ultimately sentenced in March to 15 years in prison — a relationship-damaging development that has continued to be a point of great contention between Washington and Havana.

In April, the Cuban Communist Party held their Sixth Party Congress and reviewed the terms of a great number of economic reforms whose implementation has proceeded during the course of the year. Yet in the fall, the US stood nearly solo at the United Nations as the world voted against the US embargo on Cuba. Washington put Cuba again on its list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism,” though the evidence to support the designation has withered.

This week, President Castro pardoned 2,900 prisoners in advance of the Pope’s visit to the island in 2012, noting that many of the pardoned were first-time offenders, youths, or inmates over 60 or suffering from illness. Yet here we are at the close of the year, and the Obama administration is still apparently convinced that the release of political prisoners in Cuba and the drastic economic changes underway are not enough to qualify as the “change” that would merit a significant bilateral discussion.

Asi es la vida for Cuba-watchers. The most unexpected event of this year was not a “happening” at all: it is the lack of movement forward in Washington on Cuba issues, and the continuing age-old tendency to cater to the conservative Miami Cuban-American base — a demographic that is changing and adapting its views to new developments in Cuba more so than Congress and the current administration, it seems. We expected more this year, despite the myriad of other global challenges faced by the US. Washington has found time recently to take a fresh look at Myanmar, but still not at our close neighbor Cuba.

With all of the events of the last year, here in the US the individual whose name has received the most airtime – and who therefore receives our designation of person of the year – is Alan Gross. Mr. Gross has been held in Cuba since December 2009 for distributing communications equipment illegally on the island. His sentence of 15 years in prison for crimes against the Cuban state was upheld by the Cuban Supreme Court in August. US officials have tried unsuccessfully to argue for his unilateral release; many experts have unsuccessfully argued for a prisoner swap (modeled off of the Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange of Gilad Shalit for hundreds of Palestinians — but in this case just one for five). Mr. Gross remains imprisoned, and as he was not one of the recently pardoned 2,900, Washington has continued to ignore other signs of significant change within the Cuban state. As long as Gross remains imprisoned, it appears there can be no progress.

Are you up on Latin American news? Try our quiz. Christmas In Havana: President Obama prevails on Cuban family travel rules For Cubans, new property rights – and the return of an old anxiety Topics

The forecast for 2012 is unfortunately only a tick higher than bleak in terms of the US-Cuba relationship. 2012 is a US election year, and Cuba policy remains a contentious political issue. Even just in the last few weeks, Cuba-watchers cringed (and spoke out) as a small faction of House representatives sought to fold an amendment into the 2012 spending bill that would change US regulations on Cuban-American family visits to Cuba, rolling this policy back to the Bush era. Fortunately, the White House took a stand and threatened a veto if the amendment was not removed. But many had feared that the administration would not spend the political capital to step in, and this was on an issue that simply maintained the status quo. There is very little reason for an administration seeking re-election to take the kind of political risk that more significant (necessary) Cuba policy changes entail.

However, the island’s future looks positive, at least for the moment. The population is testing out new economic reforms, the reforms are pressing ahead to the long-run benefit of a troubled economy, and foreign businesses and investors remain interested in Cuba (despite recent crackdowns on corruption that have affected foreigners as well as Cubans). Pope Benedict XVI will visit Cuba in March, and the state appears to be taking a look at its prison system in advance of that visit and making the largest number of pardons and releases of prisoners in recent history. These are positive developments that likely will not receive much acknowledgement from Washington, but for now, Havana does not appear to need our stamp of approval.

Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior Programs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy and Cuba blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. You can read her blog here.

 

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Updating re Economics Essays from TEMAS

Below are a series of hyperlinks to articles on economic reform in Cuba. Unfortunately the essays are available only in Spanish.

Economía y política

Richard Levins y Aurora Levins Morales, Respondiendo a Ricardo Torres

Omar Álvarez Dueñas, A propósito de la controversia sobre la «inviabilidad del socialismo»

Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Sobre la «inviabilidad del socialismo», pero ¿qué tipo de socialismo? (Observaciones a los comentarios de José Luis Rodríguez en Temas)

José Luis Rodríguez, A propósito del socialismo, ¿de qué inviabilidad se habla?

Luis Marcelo Vera ¿Cuál es el problema estratégico principal de la economía cubana?

LArmando Nova González, La propiedad en la economía cubana

Ricardo Torres Pérez, La actualización del modelo económico cubano: continuidad y ruptura

Julio Díaz Vázquez, Es aplicable el modelo chino o vietnamita en Cuba?

Rafael Betancourt, Observaciones en torno al Proyecto de Lineamientos

Fernando Barral, Aproximación sociológica al problema de la corrupción en Cuba

Armando Nova González, El papel estratégico de la agricultura: problemas y medidas

Omar Everleny Perez, Cuba: ¿por dónde va la economía?

Pavel Vidal Alejandro, La estabilidad monetaria en Cuba: una síntesis

Ramón de la Cruz Ochoa, Acotaciones al texto del Dr. Fernando Barral sobre la corrupción en Cuba

 

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A year later, economic reforms have transformed Cubans’ lives, if not the island itself

 

By PAUL HAVEN
Associated Press, Dec 25, 12:00 AM EST
HAVANA (AP) — A year at the  vanguard of Cuba’s economic revival has not brought Julio Cesar Hidalgo  riches. The fledgling pizzeria owner has had his good months, but the  restaurant he opened with his girlfriend often runs at a loss. At times, they  can’t afford to buy basic ingredients. Yet the wide-faced 31-year-old  says he is grateful to be in business at all. A year ago, Hidalgo was  concocting chalky pastries in a Spartan state-run bakery where employees and  managers competed to pilfer eggs, flour and olive oil, the only way to make  ends meet on salaries of just $15 a month. Today, he is his own boss, a  taxpayer, employer and entrepreneur.

“I think my expectations were  met because in Cuba today I couldn’t have hoped for anything more,” he  said one recent December afternoon as his girlfriend, Giselle de la Noval,  served customers. “We survived.”

Hidalgo’s story is mirrored by  many of the entrepreneurs The Associated Press has followed since January in  a yearlong effort to document Communist Cuba’s awkward embrace of free-market  reforms.  Their experiences – like the reforms themselves – cannot be described as an unmitigated success. Of the  dozen fledgling business owners, including restaurateurs, a DVD salesman, two  cafe owners, a seamstress, a manicurist and a gymnasium operator, three have closed down or begun working for someone else, and one has been harassed by  her former state employers. None could be considered successful by non-Cuban  standards.

But despite their struggles, many  tell of lives transformed, dreams realized, attitudes changed, and doors  opened that had been closed for more than half a century.

For Hidalgo, personal hardships  have added to the challenges of starting a business on a Marxist island that  has looked askance at entrepreneurship since Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution turned a one-time capitalist playground into a Soviet satellite. After suffering through a slow,  hot, summer when nobody wanted a pizza, Hidalgo had to close for two months  to care for his grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Even while the  business was shuttered, he and de la Noval had to make tax and social  security payments, wiping out the few hundred dollars they had saved.

They reopened in late November with so little money they can’t always afford to serve their house special. “We’ve had to start from  scratch, but the only reason we didn’t lose the business altogether is  because we were disciplined,” said de la Noval, 23. “Before we did  anything, we always put away the money we needed to pay the state.”

A year that President Raul Castro  described as make or break for the revolution is ending after a dramatic flurry of once-unthinkable reforms that are transforming economic and social life.

In October, the government  legalized a used car market, and a month later extended it to real estate, sweeping away decades of prohibitions. On Tuesday, the state began extending bank credits to new business owners and those hoping to repair their homes.But one of the most powerful reforms was Castro’s decision last year to greatly expand the ranks of the self-employed, part of a somewhat unsuccessful effort to trim bloated state-payrolls.

Some 338,000 people have received  licenses to start their own businesses, and the results can be seen and heard everywhere. On nearly every street in Havana and in thousands of hamlets and towns across Cuba, makeshift signs and bright parasols mark the entrances of new businesses, and the long-lost cries of curbside vendors hawking everything from fruit and vegetables to mops and household repair services fill the warm Caribbean air.

“The reforms have advanced, perhaps not quickly enough considering the problems that have accumulated, but they have advanced, one after another, and there is no sign that they will stop or be rolled back,” said Omar Everleny Perez, the head of Havana University’s Center for Cuban Economic Studies.

The government has declined to release any statistics on tax revenue or payroll savings from the reforms, except for an October report in the Communist Party newspaper Granma that said tax revenue from new businesses had tripled.

Cuban leaders this month lowered their forecast for economic growth for 2011 to just 2.7 percent – from the 3 percent originally hoped for – an extremely poor showing for a developing country. By contrast, China is forecast to grow by about 9 percent in 2011, Vietnam by between 6 and 6.5 percent and Brazil by 3.8 percent.

Private business owners have complained about the high taxes they must pay, the lack of raw materials and the fact they are suddenly surrounded by competitors. Because most entrepreneurs don’t have the capital to start innovative businesses, many have opened cafeterias, nail parlors, small roadside kiosks and the like.

Anisia Cardenas, a seamstress, is among more than 100,000 Cubans who have held private business licenses since the 1990s, the island’s last experiment with the free market. In the latest reform, she decided to expand, paying $2 a day to rent the front porch space of a neighbor’s house to set up her sewing machine.

But business was slow – and competition from new license holders fierce. Within a few months she had to retreat to her tiny apartment. By the summer, she began to wonder if she might have to close down, unable to meet the $19 monthly tax payments. By December, she had gone to work as an employee for another seamstress.”Things are hard,” said Cardenas, who is trying to save money for her daughter’s 15th birthday party in January. “Everything is very expensive.”

Others complain of rules that are often illogical, and state employers who still view entrepreneurship with suspicion.Maria Regla Saldivar is a black belt in taekwondo who got a license to give private lessons to neighborhood kids in a scruffy park across the street from her job. She began the year with dreams of persuading the government to let her turn an abandoned dry-cleaning warehouse into a private recreation center.

But the government refused to grant her a lease. Then her bosses at Cuba’s National Sports Institute docked her pay because they said her outside work was affecting her performance. She quit. Finally, her former boss prohibited her from using the park for martial arts lessons, which are technically prohibited. The government considers it potentially deadly training, even though most of Saldivar’s students are not even teenagers yet. “It’s called envy,” Saldivar said of her boss. She insists she is not teaching taekwondo, slyly calling the discipline “Quimbumbia” – a word of her own invention. She has moved classes for her 14 students into the tiny covered patio in the back of the apartment she shares with her teenage daughter.

But Saldivar says she has no regrets about how the year has unfolded. She says making business decisions for herself has increased her self-esteem, and she is thrilled that she’s managed to put away 2,000 pesos ($80), about four months salary at an average state job. “You may laugh, but for me it’s a lot of money,” she said, running her coarse fingers over the stripes on a pair of sky-blue track suit bottoms she bought. “I’ve wanted these for so long and now I have them. I look like a proper trainer now, not someone out picking mangoes from a tree.”

Rafael Romeu, the head of the Washington, D.C.-based Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, said Castro has “changed the conversation” since taking over from his ailing brother in 2006, pushing the leadership to get the island’s economic house in order rather than blaming external factors like the 49-year U.S. travel and trade embargo.

But so far, the changes don’t go far enough to revive Cuba’s moribund economy. “These are positive steps but when you say them out loud, just think about it … You are allowed to have a cell phone, you are allowed to buy a home, you are allowed to buy a car or have a microenterprise. This is not the fall of the Berlin Wall. These are not major changes,” he said. “Cuba has tremendous difficulties. This is a marathon, and they are taking baby steps.”

Romeu, who has worked around the world studying emerging economies, said that Cuba is moving much more deliberately than the Chinese did when they began opening their economy in the late 1970s, or the Vietnamese a decade later.

Cuba’s predicament is somewhat different, as well. Both China and Vietnam were deeply agrarian economies whose challenge was lifting tens of millions out of crushing poverty, Romeu said. Cuba is a more urban country with an aging population whose citizens have gotten used to benefits like health care and education, but who have grown accustomed to a system that doesn’t make them work for such middle
class perks. “In Cuba, the challenge is sustaining the middle class, not creating one,” Romeu said.

Still, some reforms seem to be moving along more quickly than many analysts had hoped.Business is booming at a street corner long known as the center of Havana’s informal real estate market. Only now, the handwritten listings on trees openly advertise legal home sales, instead of disguising them as property “swaps.”
Mendez Rodriguez, an unofficial  real estate broker, said the buying and selling is aboveboard, controlled by a relatively untangled bureaucracy. “Everything is by the law now,” said Rodriguez, even if his profession is not officially licensed. He and other so-called facilitators work for “gifts” left to the discretion of their clients, he said.
Rumors that real estate brokers would be the latest addition to the list of 181 licensed entrepreneurial activities have not come to pass, but there’s still hope the profession will be added in 2012. Rodriguez said the opening seems to have led to a steep increase in prices, with a home worth $20,000 a couple of months ago going for 50 percent more today. That’s the kind of price jump many of the new struggling business owners say they could use.

Javier Acosta has sunk more than $30,000 he saved as a waiter into his own upscale establishment, and says business is far from booming.

“This has been a hard year, a year of sacrifice,” he said. “There are days when nobody comes, or when I have just one or two tables, and then there are days when the place is filled.” He said his costs run to about
$1,000 a month, and when business is slow he struggles to break even.

Yet the reforms, he says, have changed the face of Cuba, and cynical countrymen who doubt the opening will be lasting must wake up to a new reality. “After 50 years where everything was prohibited it takes time to change people’s minds and make them understand that this time is different,” he said, sitting in his empty second-floor restaurant one recent afternoon. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat.”

Despite his struggles, Acosta says he would take the risk again if given the chance, a sentiment shared by Hidalgo and de la Noval. They had hoped to close on New Year’s Eve, which Cubans of means celebrate with a traditional feast of pork leg, yucca, black beans and sweets. Hidalgo said the family simply doesn’t have enough saved to take the night off after its year of trials and tribulations. Instead, he’s planning to keep the pizzeria open late and celebrate on the job with his girlfriend and his aunt at his side. “We’re thinking of making a
small meal for the three of us,” he said. “If we can afford a leg
of pork it’ll be to sell, not to eat ourselves.”

 

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Una cartografía de la blogósfera cubana: Entre «oficialistas» y «mercenarios»

Por Ted Henken

Este artículo es copia fiel del publicado en la revista Nueva Sociedad No 235,  septiembre-octubre de 2011, ISSN: 0251-3552, <www.nuso.org>.

The complete document is located here: Henken Una cartografía de la blogosfera cubana

At this time, only a Spanish language version of this article is available. However, Ted Henke will shortly publish an English language version on his website located here: El Yuma

Pese al clima –por momentos  agobiante– de polarización, en Cuba ha emergido una variedad de blogs y de blogueros que buscan sobreponerse a las dificultades políticas y materiales. Más allá de los adjetivos con que cada «bando» busca descalificar a los otros, en los últimos años la extensión de la blogósfera cubana ha sido capaz, no obstante, de construir algunos puentes y espacios que buscan salir de los «monólogos» tanto oficialistas como opositores. Todo ello en un contexto en el que tanto para el gobierno cubano como para el de Estados Unidos la web forma parte de una batalla política de mayores dimensiones.

Ted A. Henken is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Latin American Studies, Baruch College, City University of New York. He has worked, researched and published widely on Cuba. His first book, Cuba: A Global Studies Handbook (ABC-CLIO, 2008), is a comprehensive overview and reference guide to Cuban history and culture. He is currently co-editing a follow up to this volume, entitled, Cuba: In Focus (ABC-CLIO, 2013). He has also written extensively about the development of micro-enterprise, the underground economy and the independent jo0urnalists in Cuba, His widely-read web site on Cuba is El Yuma

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“Reflections” … on Vaclav Havel, Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro and Raul Castro

By Arch Ritter

On December 18 and 19 2011, the world witnessed the passing of Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia and Kim Jong Il of North Korea.


Vaclav Havel

Kim Jong Il

Vaclav Havel will be remembered as the courageous dissident who stood up against a monolithic totalitarian regime, backed by the armed forces of the Soviet Union which had suppressed the “Prague Spring” of 1968, as well as uprisings in East Germany and Poland. Havel’s audacity in the face of overwhelming odds is an inspiration to all of us. But let us remember also Lech Walesa as well as the innumerable citizens who early on led the uprisings in most of the Eastern European states. Despite numerous incarcerations and suppressions, Havel persisted, providing ethical insight and guidance to the Czechoslovak democracy movement. In Havel’s words, from Living in Truth (1986):

It is, however, becoming evident—and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance—that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters. …..…. It is becoming evident that politics by no means need remain the affair of professionals and that one simple electrician with his heart in the right place, honoring something that transcends him and free of fear, can influence the history of his nation.

How will Kim Jong Il be remembered?

Unfortunately Fidel Castro and his government threw their lot in with the totalitarian dictators of this world such as Kim Il Sung and his just-departed son Kim Jong Il, Gustaf Husak, Wojciech Jaruzelski etc. Even in 2008, Fidel was pronouncing his admiration for the Kims and their despicable, dysfunctional, dynastic despotism. (See Fidel Castro’s Reflections of Fidel Castro about Korea, from Cuba News Agency, August 22 and 24 2008.)

Who can forget and forgive Fidel Castro’s justification of and support for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 – that took four tightly packed pages of Granma (August 24, 1968)?

Who in Cuba today rules with similar institutions to and in the style of Gustáv Husák, (Czechoslovakia), Leonid Brezhnev (USSR), Erich Honecker (East Germany), Wojciech Jaruzelski (Poland), Janis Kadar (Hungary),  Nicolae Ceausescu (Rumania) or Todor Zhivkov (Bulgaria) ?

Who in Cuba today wields the moral authority and insight of Vaclav Havel?

Perhaps Raul Castro is or should be thinking of the significance and legacies of Vaclav Havel and Kim Jong Il. Could Raul redeem himself at this late date and generate a legacy that will not be reviled in future? He could conceivably, if he were to phase out the old political regime and phase in a pluralistic democratic political system that fully respected political and civil liberties and labor rights as these are articulated in the various United Nations Declarations and Covenants. Perhaps there is still time. But the chances of this occurring are possibly 1 in 1,000. We most likely await the beginnings of an inevitable resolution that will be provided soon by Mother Nature and Father Time.

Granma, 24 de agosto de 1968, Front page

Yet Another Medal, this one from Kim Il Sung

With Jarulzelski

Holding hands with Quaddafi

 

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From EFE: “Political arrests on rise in Cuba, opposition says”

The intensification of “low level” political repression in Cuba in the last year or so is disturbing. It reverses the mild “net” tendency towards greater liberalization – with fits and starts, and ups and downs – that I thought I saw occurring some time ago. (see Freedom of Expression, Economic Self-Correction and Self-Renewal.)

(EFE) Published December 19, 2011

Havana –  The opposition Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation said Monday that in December there have been 388 temporary detentions for political reasons in Cuba.

“We are very disturbed by the increase of what is called ‘low intensity’ political repression consisting of being kept in custody for hours, days or weeks,” Elizardo Sanchez, spokesman for the illegal but tolerated commission, told foreign correspondents.

“We have absolutely confirmed – up to yesterday, Dec. 18 – 388 detentions for political reasons, many of them violent,” he said.

Sanchez said that the political, economic and cultural situation and that of civil rights in Communist-ruled Cuba “continue to deteriorate.”

As an example of his complaint he presented the case of Henry Perales, who appeared at the same press conference to report that he was violently arrested and jailed by police together with a group of dissidents when they tried to carry out a peaceful march on Dec. 2 in the eastern town of Palma Soriano.

Perales, 27, said that he and his friends were beaten by security agents and, in his case, by the driver of the bus they put him in.

“When I got on (the bus) I yelled ‘Long live human rights!’ The driver had a tool in his hand, he struck me with it and when I called him a murderer he hit me again,” Perales said.

He said police took him to a medical post where he was given nine stitches to close the wounds caused by the blows. Afterwards he was jailed for nearly five days and was later released without charges.

Perales said he intended to present a “formal accusation” against the bus driver, and Sanchez confirmed that the commission will aid the dissident in his efforts to obtain justice.

Elizardo Sanchez Santacruz, Director of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation

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