The General, ‘Reforms’ and the Myth of the Renewal of the ‘Model’ / Miriam Celaya


Six years after the Proclamation in which Fidel Castro delegated almost all power to his brother, and four years after Raul Castro officially took the reins of government, almost all optimism about the possible beginning stages of transformations to advance the economy in Cuba have faded. Much less can there be any illusions regarding freedoms and rights.

Wrapped in his aura of “a pragmatic man” — based on projects carried out in the ‘90s, when he was Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and created joint ventures, with the participation of elite and “trusted” officers, in hard currency economic activities: tourist-hotel complexes, stores, restaurants, etc. — General Raul Castro has become another failed hope for those who aspire to any economic opening, even if moderate, with a greater involvement from ordinary Cubans, as well as for those who thought that such an opening would lead to a gradual lifting of the numerous restrictions that annul and restrict any possibility of citizen prosperity.

Four years is the usual time allotted to the president of a democratic society to develop a government program and demonstrate its effectiveness and capacities in a nation, a period during which the reduction in poverty and the creation of jobs are usually permanent objectives and two of the most important indicators of progress of every administration.

In Cuba, however, after this period of time, not only is there no government program with clearly established goals and timelines — even the mere promise of a daily glass of milk for every Cuban is an insoluble economic challenge for the government — but there exists an explicit demonization of individual prosperity endorsed in an open war against “enrichment,” while officially announced layoffs have affected more than 1,300,000 workers. No government of a free society could survive such nonsense.

This calamitous socioeconomic state has led the general-president to offer his oft repeated phrase of “introducing structural and conceptual changes,” a line meant to distract public opinion as well as to delude the unwary. It is, in reality, a diversionary tactic to allow the ruling elite, instead of improving the situation or generating social benefits, to gain what we Cubans are losing: time. An apparently reformist discourse to disguise a retrograde and twisted economic policy and the complete lack of any intention to introduce changes.

So, in the last two years the masquerade of an opening was carried forward through the proliferation of tiny businesses, while at the same time an attempt was made to legitimate a state of permanent experimentation — in both the economy and in issues inherent to citizens’ rights — which on the one hand justifies the slow application of the so-called “reforms,” and on the other gives the government impunity, the grace of eternity, and the present and future arbitration over every aspect of national life, be it the economy, politics, or any other niche of society.

Against the ‘reforms’

In any event, it was a timely retirement. The General himself was in charge of assuring that this time there would be no retreat on self-employment, as had happened during the ‘90s. Let no one doubt, under Raul’s regime self-employment had come to stay. What’s more, there would be no discrimination against the self-employed and the dignity of individual effort would be recognized. In the excitement of the economic plans of small family businesses as a palliative to the national misery, self-employed workers seemed to have become the Revolutionaries of our time.

But, indeed, it was barely the mirage of a moment, because it soon became evident that some family businesses, despite being in unequal and unfair competition with the State, not only survived, but were more attractive than their peers in the State sector. Many sellers of clothing, footwear and accessories have better prices, as well as products of better quality and variety which — in the absence of an internal wholesale market — are sent by their families abroad. Some even offer articles not sold in the hard currency stores.

Something similar happened with the private restaurants: the owners of these businesses receive products and supplies from abroad that cannot be purchased in this country, or whose prices in the domestic market are prohibitive. As a consequence, and given that their earnings depend on their own effort, the quality of the food and service in the private restaurants is greatly superior to that of the State’s.

The official reaction shows that retreat on the reforms is not only possible, but inherent in the system. Recent actions include the increase in customs tariffs against imports, and exaggerated hygiene-sanitary measures against the private restaurant sector (not also enforced on the filthy State establishments), added to the other burdens placed on self-employment such as abusive tax rates and the corruption of inspectors and other officials.

As an aggravating factor, self-employment remains illegal under the constitution, as to date there has been no repeal of Article 21, which established that “the ownership of the means and instruments of personal or family labor cannot be used to obtain profits through the exploitation of the work of others.” This is a situation that allows the authorities to walk back or stop the process “until adjustments are made in the pertinent laws.”

Currently, the issuance of license for self-employment has slowed greatly, while the return of licenses already issued has accelerated. Everything indicates that self-employment became too broad a task for State control, and too narrow a horizon for the aspirations for prosperity for many of the proto-entrepreneurs who chose this route as a possible path.

Now the most recent of the Raul regime’s proposals is the oldest “innovation” in the world, to be applied “experimentally” in Cuba: non-State cooperatives. Which, of course, shouldn’t be understood literally as cooperatives independent of the State. This initiative hides under the induced historical amnesia that the Cuban people suffer from, given that before 1959 there were numerous independent cooperatives on the Island which worked perfectly: taxi drivers, restaurants, various trades, and even doctors and lawyers. Why “experiment” in something that is known and whose efficiency is more than proven? Undoubtedly, this is another scam that is added to the list of well-tried reforms.

The Cuban “model” and its “renewal” that won’t be

We’ve all heard the general-president speak of “the Cuban model” when it comes to economics. To “renew” this “modal” has been his roadmap, the backbone of his government endorsed program (?!) in a set of guidelines almost no one remembers.

Few Cubans, however, could describe the concept. What elements support the existence of a Cuban economic model? Did the numerous (innumerable) economic failures derive from the preposterous plans of Castro I, indisputable architect of the national ruin? Is the more than half a century record of moving from first place to last place in this Hemisphere surpassed only by Haiti in misery?

Are the galloping corruption, the chronic inefficiency, the insufficient salaries, the barriers and immobility, more appropriate hallmarks for defining a “Cuban model”? And if so, in what sense would it be renewed? Is there anything salvageable in the supposed model? It’s a rhetorical question.

The essential contradiction facing the government today lies in the impossibility of achieving economic progress or furthering reforms while, at the same time, repressing individual liberties. The system’s totalitarian character doesn’t allow any movement; this is the lesson that the government has learned over these four years.

What Cubans have learned is that there will be no true reforms generated from government initiatives, while all the conditions still have not matured for proposals for change to be generated by citizens. For the government, the only thing left is repression as a means of survival. For Cubans all that is left is the dilemma between rising up and emigrating.

There will be no solution to the crisis in Cuba as long as the United Nations Human Rights Covenants, signed by the government itself in February 2008 and never ratified, are complied with, but it is the job of Cubans themselves to see that these don’t become another waste of paper. The only possible and effective renewal in Cuba today is the recovery of civil society, the restoration of the Rule of Law, and of democracy.

From Diario de Cuba

20 September 2012