Back to Square One / Dimas Castellanos

All societies require changes. Cuba, trapped in the past half century, requires not only changes but major changes. In the last three years the government has dictated some important steps but that importance lies not in their scope — quite limited of course — but in the government’s need to undertake transformations and to break down the stagnation that characterized the last decades.

The paradox is that the recent measures are simultaneously a step back and a step forward. A step back because after taking the wrong road against the logic of history, we are heading now toward the Cuba of 1958. An advance, because given the time lost overcoming the crisis to the return to the point of departure, and from there to correct the course. The concrete fact is that the Cuba of 1958 with its inequalities and injustices was in better shape than the Cuba of today to undertake a project of changes. Hence, the return is an advance that will allow a getting back on a course that never should have been abandoned. Let’s look at some of the measures taken since 2008.

1 – Decree Law 259 of 2008, which provides grants of land in usufruct is a retreat from the first and second Agrarian Reform Law, passed in 1959 and 1963 respectively. These two laws, on liquidating the landowners’ monopoly over the land, could have been the basis for the formation of a national middle class and a diversified economy. However, the turn toward totalitarianism wasted these possibilities. Almost all of these lands were turned into a great State-owned estate. Then, as a result of mismanagement and loss of interest by those who worked the land, the land was taken over by invasive marabou and other weeds; when the country had to buy 80% of its food from abroad the Government saw itself forced to dictate the decree mentioned above through which 1 caballería (33.2 acres) of land was distributed in usufruct, an arrangement that had to be modified to bring it into line with the Second Agrarian Reform Law of 1963, when up to 5 caballerías were offered.

2 – The Labor Reform, regulated by Decree Law 276 of September 2010 constitutes the recognition of the failure of the “full employment” policy, in which inflated payrolls were maintained in order to show the world the “superiority” of the Cuban system, against all economic logic. Now this decree leaves more than a million workers without employment, which represents 20% of the Cuban labor force, a figure significantly higher than the 1.7% unemployment declared in 2009 and also the unemployment that existed before 1959.

3 – Self-employment, including the latest amendments introduced in Decree Law 284 in September 2011, increased the number of permitted activities from 178 to 181, and added the flexibility to hire labor in some activities. This list of what is permitted, which for the most part is a legalizing of what already goes on, ignores the development of small and medium businesses. If the widening of self-employment has as its objective to put to work a share of the million and a half workers who are being laid off, and to generate goods and services that the State is incapable of providing, then that list of permitted activities will have to be abandoned and instead only the few activities not permitted should be defined. For the rest, citizen initiative will give ample evidence of its potential, much more so in a country like Cuba with such a high level of education.

4 – In 2011 Decree Law 292 was adopted, which established regulations for the transfer of vehicle ownership through purchase-sale or gift between Cubans who live on the Island and permanent or temporary resident foreigners. Also, Decree Law 288, similar to the former, allows the purchase-sale or gift of real estate. Another recent measure is aimed at barbershops and beauty salons, although the premises remain State property. All of these laws fall short of what existed in these areas before 1959, when cars, homes, barber shops, beauty salons and hundreds of thousands of goods-and-services business were owned by citizens, who could dispose of them freely.

To this must be added the widespread corruption that resulted from taking the wrong path. By eliminating the small owners and true cooperatives, the State enterprises became “estaticulares” — a term coined in 2001 that combines the words “state” and “private” to designate enterprises owned by the state whose earnings accrue to individuals. This results in a vast underground network of goods and services that cannot count on supplies of raw materials, tools, and spare parts, and generates widespread theft, which is known in popular slang as “escape, struggle and resolve,” words to describe actions taken to survive. This abnormality is strengthened by the low salaries, which has made corruption — which until 1958 was essentially limited to the political-administrative sphere — into the survival device that predominates today.

However, this return to the past is an advance relative to the present, taking ourselves back to the point where the tide turned to see if from there, and despite the delay and anthropological damage inflicted, we can get ourselves back on track. It is a possibility that depends on the deepening of the measures to bring us as close as possible back to the starting point. But it also depends on the creation and construction of a social structure that guarantees the participation of Cubans in decision-making and a conception of private property, in which various structures live together and cohabit, because property, be it individual, family, cooperative or state, has the social function of mobilizing the potential and initiative of people to produce.

In short, it requires, once we are back at the beginning, that Cubans be reconverted into citizens.

Published in Diario de Cuba on Wednesday, 13 December 2011 (