Ivan Garcia, 24 February 2017 — Marino Murillo, the presumptive tsar of economic reforms in Cuba, a prime minister with broad powers, passed up a seat in the first row next to the senior staff of a long-lived revolution governed by an exclusive club of elders who, as a group, have lived almost 500 years, to take a seat in the third row, far from the spotlight and the cameras.
In closed societies, where rumors are more truthful than the information offered by the State press, you have to learn to read between the lines. Lacking a government office that offers public information to its citizens, academics, journalists and political scientists, you must look with a magnifying glass at the most insignificant signs.
That morning in December 2015, when the autocrat Raúl Castro feigned indignation before the more than 600 deputies of the monotone national parliament about the abusive prices of agricultural products, was the beginning of the end for Marino Murillo.
Castro II requested that measures be applied. And not very consistently, alleging the law of supply and demand that governs the produce markets, Murillo mumbled that he would try to implement different regulations to try to curb the increase in prices.
Apparently this wasn’t sufficient. The previous super-minister fell into disgrace, and now not even his photo appears in the official media, although theoretically he continues at the front of the agenda, charged with implementing the economic guidelines, a kind of commandment that moves at a snail’s pace and with serious delays: In six years, only a little more than 20 percent of the guidelines have been implemented.
With the fading-out of fatso Murillo, the dynamic of timid economic reforms — together with openings in the obsessive defense of Fidel Castro, who transformed Cubans into third-class citizens — the game began to be directed by the most rancid and conservative of the military leadership.
It was essential to open to the world and repeal the feudal exit permit needed to travel outside the island, to permit Cubans to rent hotel rooms and to buy or sell houses, among other normal regulations in any country in the 21st century.
There is no doubt that this was a leap forward, with barriers, absurd prices and spite for people who make money. Yes, in Cuba they sell cars, but a Peugeot 508 is worth more than a Ferrari, and you must pay cash.
The Internet and cell phones are not exactly tools of science fiction, but the price for service is insane for a country where the average salary is 25 dollars a month.
The supposed reforms were always incomplete. They were left halfway. Cubans cannot invest in large businesses; professionals don’t have authorization to work for themselves, and the State claims the right to establish a ridiculous list of jobs that are or are not permitted.
Of the 201 authorized jobs, there are at least 10 or 15 enterprises where, with creativity and effort, you can make large sums of money, always taking into account the Cuban context, where anyone who earns 10,000 Cuban pesos a month (about $400) is considered “rich.” This is a country where for almost 60 years, the average citizen is sponsored by the State.
Of course the regulations, excessive taxes, harassment by State inspectors and a deadly clause in the Government’s economic bible, which prohibits persons or groups from accumulating large sums of capital, hinder prosperity and the boom in private work.
In a nation where the Government has been in charge of clothing, shoeing, rewarding or punishing its citizens, a margin of liberalism, as small as it is, was an oasis for a half million entrepreneurs who now live on the margins of the State.
The starting shot that would put the handbrake on the reforms began on December 17, 2014, when President Barack Obama and General Raúl Castro, of mutual accord, put an end to the incredible Cold War between Cuba and the United States.
Once out of the trenches, Obama began to launch packets of measures with the marked intention of favoring private workers. The Regime didn’t like that.
They wanted to do business with the gringos but with their own State enterprises, not to empower the private ones. Then, progressively, the Castro autocracy started to slow down the dynamic sector, probably the only one that was growing on the Island, that paid salaries from three to five times more than the State, and which gave employment to some 20 percent of the work force.
In autumn of 2015, a negative dynamic began. Presently only 30 percent of the supply-and-demand produce markets are functioning. The State harasses and penalizes the cart vendors who sell meat, fruit and vegetables, and they have declined by 50 percent. The State closed the largest produce market in Trigal, south of Havana, and the Taliban juggernaut expects to increase with regulations and taxes on all the buoyant businesses in gastronomy, transport and hotel services.
What’s this new “revolutionary offensive” about? I don’t think it has the reach of the confiscations of french fry stands and shoeshine stalls of 1968, or the counter-reforms for certain openings in the 1980s and ’90s.
But it’s undeniable that the Regime doesn’t want the train to derail. Presently there’s a small segment of Cubans, between 60,000 and 100,000 persons, who have amassed small fortunes thanks to their taste and talent for business.
We’re talking about 100,000 dollars going forward, an insignificant figure in any First World country, but extraordinary in a country impoverished by the poor management of the Castro brothers.
In addition to pleasure and social status, money engenders power. While Castroism functions in Cuba, private businesses will not be able to prosper. This is the reason for the brakes put on the private owners.
A word of advice to the olive green Regime: Be careful with excesses. In December 2010, an abusive fine on the owner of a food stand, Mohammed Buazisi, who out of contempt immolated himself, put a final end to the Tunisian dictatorship of Ben Ali and unchained the Arab Spring.
In its present offensive against the private taxi drivers, the Cuban authorities shouldn’t forget what happened in Tunisia a little more than six years ago. In societies of order and control, the devil is always in the details.
Translated by Regina Anavy