It has always been said that there is nothing worse than a blind person who doesn’t want to see, likewise it could be asserted that there is nothing worse than an idealist who wants to see that which does not exist. The so-called reforms enacted by the Cuban government, starting when Raul Castro assumed the presidency, are permanently overhyped by a sophisticated promotional campaign that hopes to convince foreigner observers that changes are happening in Cuba. Meanwhile for so many on the island, inside people’s homes, inside of their refrigerators and on their shelves, nothing is happening.
Beyond the primarily cosmetic measures, like giving Cubans the legal right to be guests in hotels, to have a cell phone contract, or to purchase a computer; the main economic reforms most talked about are those related to the situation of imported goods, the wage reforms and the turning over of idle farm land in usufruct.
The idea that the country should not buy from abroad what it can produce on its own land deserves to be applauded. The best example of this, are the fruits and vegetables that the country imports to satisfy the existing demand of the hotel industry. Therefore, the issue is not to cut back to the point where we stop importing a product, but to produce it here with high enough quality and with the guarantee of it arriving at its destination at the right time. The most important and difficult thing to achieve might be keeping the costs for doing this in Cuba lower than buying produce from abroad.
The state can not, for example, claim to provide support for an Italian restaurant if the kitchen can’t count on having cheese and pasta of an acceptable quality; nor can the regime expect that the people are enjoying an improved quality of life, if these same people can not afford the consumer goods that they have approved. Most of the products being sold in stores are part of a monopoly of state commerce, in convertible pesos (CUCs), at prices that are four times higher than they cost to manufacture. The correct campaign would be dealing with issues around imported products and not launching a punitive decree against foreign merchandise. The real reform would be making it possible for the state run farms, cooperatives or private businesses to pursue their initiatives so that they would be competitive on the level of prices and quality with those producing comparable things abroad.
In a country where the state controls just about everything, no one wants to speak about the salary reform without a consequent monetary reform and a reform of prices. Let’s take for example someone that might have benefited from a higher salary cap applied in Cuba. Supposing that this worker’s salary has just gone up by 25%, e.g. before he was making 500 Cuban pesos and now he is making 625, a net gain of 125 pesos, which would allow him to acquire two liters of cooking oil and a kilogram of onions. In the subsidized market he will not be able to buy anything extra, because besides being ‘state assistance,’ it is rationed and therefore this market will not sell additional items. In addition, he will not benefit from a greater number of trips on local buses, since these are also subsidized by the state. Simply because one’s rhythm of going between from work to home and vice versa, does not allow devoting more time for life on public transportation. He will not be able to read more newspapers, buy more electricity, nor buy more medicines. The only place he can spend the money from his augmented salary is in the market where the ‘national’ money is worth exactly 25 times less. So therefore, he has earned in reality 5 convertible pesos more. His well publicized higher salary can be reduced to just this.
Very far from making a new Agrarian Reform, which wouldconfiscate unproductive land from state owned plantations and turn the property over to the campesinos that would make it productive, the government has restricted this to offering small parcels of idle land in usufruct for a ten year period that can be renewed.
The new law, which should be approved by December 2008, does not express with clarity if the future owners of the land in usufruct will have the right to contract labor. The text of this new arrangement speaks in a very ambiguous terms about the issue of indemnity, or compensation, that a person would be able to receive when their usufruct contract comes to an end and might not be renewed. “How could I take with me the well that I opened on this land?” a farmer might ask. “How much are they going to pay me for the trees that I planted, for the infestations that I did away with and for the work that went into improving the land?” The lack of guarantees, which suggests a very short term of usufruct, will be a negative element in the moment of stimulating the people that will have to work the land from dawn to dusk. Only property with inheritance rights could be able to attract interested people in such a matter. Landowners that can decide what they are going to produce and with sufficient autonomy from the state to bring to the marketplace what they produced.
A law from the Marxist dialectic, which was repeated to us over and over again in school, postulated that incremental quantitative changes could only generate qualitative changes up to a certain point. As an old professor of mine used to say to illustrate this rule, “One does not become bald, just because ten hairs might fall out.” For this same reason, the timid reforms applied during Raul Castro’s reign, are destined exactly to maintain the current system, not to change it. The greatest proof of this is that nobody has spoken of transforming a single aspect relating to the civil and political rights of the citizens, let alone question the political monopoly of the Communist Party.
“Nothing in here, nothing in there” proclaims the magician by showing his empty hands, while the innocent spectators expect to see the reforms coming out of his top hat.
Havana, Cuba. August 4, 2008
Yoani Sanchez is a Cuban blogger, who was awarded the prestigious Ortega y Gasset Journalism Prize for her work. She was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time Magazine in 2008. Her writings can be found at http://desdecuba.com/generationy/