Voices of Change in Cuba Could Emerge from the Private Sector / Iván García

Bicyclists parading through Havana on May 10, 2016 in protest against high fines imposed on them and restrictions preventing them from operating in some streets of the capital. From Independent and Democratic Cuba (CID).
Bicyclists parading through Havana on May 10, 2016 in protest against high fines imposed on them and restrictions preventing them from operating in some streets of the capital. From Independent and Democratic Cuba (CID).

Iván García, 30 July 2016 — One a hot afternoon in May, a Havana bicycle taxi driver became upset over a fine of 700 pesos and managed to overturn a government regulation which he considered arbitrary. This triggered a flawlessly prepared legal argument, which culminated in a protest by about forty taxi drivers in Revolution Square demanding their rights.

Officials of the regime treated them with kid gloves. The government dismissed the fines imposed on bicycle taxi drivers and promised to investigate irregularities and complaints of corruption against state inspectors.

Without fanfare and despite continuing abuses, they continue working in different areas of Havana from which the government had tried to evict them years earlier.

Given what happened in the capital and the fact that the protest was covered by the independent press, one might think that the military dictatorship had shown a preference for negotiation over brute force.

In an article published in Diario de Cuba, journalist Omar Lopez Montenegro provided this analysis: “The protest in Revolution Square is an event worthy of further study. Images show the bicycle taxi drivers demonstrating an enviable level of organization, with their vehicles advancing one behind another, creating a perception of numbers and power focused on a specific issue. The protest upended a number of stereotypes. People in Cuba lose their fear when they are motivated by a matter they feel affects their interests. Opposition speeches heavily laden with policy statements are simply not in sync with their reality.”

I am struck by that last line. I have spoken to several of the pedicab drivers who took part in the protests. They were not just looking for attention. They only wanted their rights to be respected and for the state to be more flexible when it comes to their jobs.

No leaders of the deflated and divided dissident movement got involved, provided advice or put themselves at the forefront of the protest. The reasons? They vary.

The drivers did not trust the opposition and did not want their complaints to be politicized. There have been over a hundred disputes or complaints by workers and small business owners since April 2010 according to an official with the National Office of Tax Administration (ONAT), the body which oversees private sector employment.

“Before, when a self-employed worker believed he was being unfairly treated by an inspector, the solution was to resolve the problem in a fistfight or by paying some bum to beat the guy up. But not anymore. Now they send well-written letters to high-ranking government officials, a large percentage of whom agree with them on what needs to be done. Complaints involve more than the need for a wholesale market and lowering certain taxes. They are also demanding greater autonomy, the ability to import goods from overseas and a legal framework that would allow them to invest in their own country,” says the official.

The private and cooperative sectors employ more than 700,000 workers. That is thirty percent of the Cuban labor force. Ask Francisco Valido, a former employee of a collectively owned bus company and open critic of the regime, and he will point out the devious strategies used by special services and government labor institutions, organizations which are always inclined to negotiate.

Valido has given dozens of interviews to independent journalists and has participated in programs by Radio Marti, a news outlet considered an enemy by the Castro brothers and their followers. Yet despite all the pressure exerted on him, they have never been able to remove him from his job.

Valido wrote letters to the Council of State and the Ministry of Transport, requesting a series of changes to the structure of transportation cooperatives that would provide a more efficient service to the population.

The state’s tactic was to lease a taxi in his name in hard currency in an attempt to silence him. “They will use any method of persuasion possible as long as we do not report these cases to the alternative press or consult an independent attorney,” says the owner of a restaurant who, when feeling mistreated, turns to the free press.

If any of the dissident leaders, who spend half the year travelling abroad to participate events of greater or lesser importance, had advised the workers at the cigar factory in Hoguin, perhaps their attempt at a strike for better wages and working conditions would have been successful.

According Oslay Dueñas, a former Labor Ministry official, “the self-employment sector is the germ from which factions and leaders will emerge to demand more fundamental economic reforms. They are a legal force that within two years could include a million members and which could provide higher quality services to millions of Cubans more efficiently than the state.”

The government knows this. That is why its strategy is to overwhelm them with absurd regulations and excessive taxes.

As a story from World War II goes, Joseph Stalin’s assistant mentioned to him that the Vatican had declared war on the Soviet Union. The butcher of Georgia asked, “And just how many tank divisions can these people send to the front?” When no answer was forthcoming, he continued making plans to fight the real enemy, Nazi Germany.

Putting this in the context of Cuba, the current group of dissidents could not summon even a thousand people for a protest march and is being worn down by disagreements and internal divisions.

It is private-sector entrepreneurs and the growing discontent of state-sector workers, burdened with low salaries and the ineffectiveness of government-run trade unions, that could bring about greater autonomy.

The tussle between the regime and the Havana transport workers is one indication of this. Faced with the government’s decision to regulate fares, taxi drivers organized in order to sabotage the attempt by employing legal strategies.

Today, the island is like a tender box. Any situation could set off a protest.

But the voices of change, anonymous and silent, are to be found in the private sector. They are the tanks Stalin was talking about.

 Marti Noticias, July 28, 2016