Being Rich Is Banned in Cuba / Iván García

Source: El Universal de Colombia

Ivan Garcia, 8 June 2017 — The die is cast. At the special session of the National Assembly of People’s Power held on May 31 and June 1 at the Palace of Conventions, delegates have, as expected, approved the economic plan for 2016 to 2021 and a national plan for economic and social development for 2030.

Were it not so serious, it would seem like a sketch from the late night American comedy show “Saturday Night Live,” especially since the parliamentary debates were more farcical than rational.

Numerous “discussions” were televised. Not even Pánfilo — an elderly character created by the famous Cuban comedian Luis Silva and a man obsessed with his ration book — generates as many contradictions and absurdities.

Committees made up of so-called peoples’ representatives held debates, attempted to change one word in a paragraph, tweaked a concept and championed trivialities in order to justify two days of meetings in an air-conditioned facility where attendees were provided with breakfast, lunch and dinner along with breaks for coffee and mineral water.

Mercenaries of a different kind. No parliamentarian asked the recently reappointed economics and planning minister, Marino Murillo, to specify just how much capital one would be allowed to accumulate in Cuba. In other words, how rich could one be?

A few official reports offer some clues. The regime is already preparing a series of measures aimed at limiting or restricting the prosperity of citizens and small business owners.

Lucio, an economist, believes that, “in addition to legal restrictions, they will issue repressive rulings and adopt tax provisions to curtail wealth. Those who accumulate certain sums of money that the government considers excessive will be subject to a severe fiscal knife. In the worst cases, they will face forfeiture or criminal sanctions. I see no other way to curtail the accumulation of capital.”

There is a dreadful incongruity to the new legislative stew. While the island’s ruling military junta grants approval and legal status to private businesses, it also uses a range of prohibitions to limit their growth and to prevent them from prospering or making money.

The island’s chieftains are paralyzed by fear that the state will lose its control over society.

They are worried that, as successful mid-size businesses grow, they will move large sums of money that could exceed a million dollars and create supply chains that will benefit society.

Or that the owner of a restaurant will open two or three branches, expanding within the same city or into other provinces, and acquire a million dollars or more in funding through bank loans or other sources.

Of course, if a private businessman plays his cards right, he will do well, even earning annual profits in the six figures. That is the basis of national economic growth. As long as they respect the law and pay their taxes, bring on successful private business ventures!

But the government has a specific strategy. The only companies that may accumulate millions of dollars and enter into joint-ventures with foreign firms are state-owned enterprises. In other words, GAESA-style military-run conglomerates or others of the same ilk. It is the state playing with capitalism.

I did not hear any voices in the boring, monotone Cuban parliament asking for explanations or details about how Gaviota and Rafin’s multi-million dollar earnings would ultimately be used.*

By 2020 Gaviota will operate 50,000 hotel rooms as well as marinas, golf courses and stores. Within the next ten years the military-run conglomerate will become the largest hotel group in the Americas yet the whereabouts of its revenues are unknown.

Rafin, which according to sources is an acronym for Raúl and Fidel Investments, is an opaque corporation in a country with a planned economy that has never stated publicly what its sources of capital are.

This mysterious company bought Telecom Italia’s stake in a joint venture with the Cuban government that was intended to modernize the state-owned telecommunications monopoly ETECSA. Rafin is now the sole owner of ETECSA.

What is it doing with its multi-million dollar profits? Are parliamentary deputies not concerned that ETECSA has not created a social fund to benefit primary, secondary and pre-university schools, whose makeshift computer labs lack internet access?

Furthermore, they did not complain about the high prices ETECSA charges for its mobile phone, wifi and internet services, a subject much discussed in online discussions sponsored by official media outlets and about which readers have expressed their frustration. Or about the alarming prices for goods sold at hard currency retail stores. Or, even more scandalous, the prices of cars on display in large, well-lit showrooms.

Nor did any parliamentarians demand that state-run companies lower the prices of household appliances, televisions and smartphones at places like the Samsung store on 3rd Avenue and 70th Street in Miramar in western Havana, where a Galaxy S7 edge costs the equivalent of $1,300 and a seventy-inch 4K television goes for around $5,000.

The fact that the state is planning the lives of its citizens through 2030 seems like science fiction when no one knows how we will make it even to year’s end. The average Cuban pays no attention to parliamentary debates or to party politics.

People often look the other way. Apathy, dissimulation and indifference to national affairs pave the way for regime’s excesses.

Workers attend labor union meetings where, without giving them any thought, they approve economic proposals they do not want and do not understand. And in their neighborhoods and districts, they vote mechanically for candidates to the National Assembly who solve nothing. Cuba has become a nation of domesticated zombies.

Everyone complains quietly at home to his or her family members, neighbors and friends. But in workplaces and schools, they feign loyalty to the government, especially when it comes time to have a document approved or to vote in sterile elections. We have gotten what we deserve.

Deng Xiaoping, a diehard communist and father of China’s economic reforms, understood that making money was neither shameful nor a crime. “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white. What matters is if catches mice,” he said in 1960. In Cuba’s dictatorship, the cat wears olive green battle fatigues.

*Translator’s note: Gaviota operates a chain of tourist hotels throughout the island and offers other tourism related services. According to Bloomberg, Rafin SA “operates as a diversified financial services company.” In 2011 it bought Telecom Italia’s 27% stake in the Cuban state telecommunications monopoly ETECSA for $706 million.