Economic Reforms and Daily Realities in Cuba

When Raul Castro rose to the presidency in February and initially set off a wave of small reforms, he raised people’s hopes on and off the island that major changes were finally on the verge of happening. Six months later, however, Raul seems far more concerned with making sure that he stays in power than truly addressing the endemic problems that the Cuban people are facing on a daily basis. Certainly in the wake of the two major hurricanes that devastated the island, Cuba desperately needs to see living conditions improve considerably. What does the immediate future hold?

This issue tries to explain and demystify some of the ‘reforms’ that Raul has initiated, while also trying to place them within a historical context. Cuba is clearly at a turning point, but is it more like 1968 or 1988? Will his belief in socialism turn out to have a human face and resist using force or driven by the idea that people will choose consumerism over democracy if he can create a Vietnamese style economy in the Caribbean? Perhaps more importantly, will the Cuban people be allowed to have a say in their future for the first time in nearly 50 years? Raul might see himself as an innovator who has learned from the successes and failures of Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, but in the end he is more like the older Russian leaders who kept dying off in the early 80s – willfully oblivious to the fact that the world had changed tremendously since the end of WWII. One can only maintain support based on past triumphs and promises for a brighter future for so long.

The EU seems unclear on what to do with Cuba. In June, the EU Council decided to drop the suspended diplomatic sanction against Cuba that were imposed after the 2003 crackdown, but it will still review conditions at the end of 2008 to see if the Castro regime has successful met a series of criteria in the fields of human rights and democratization. Allegedly relations have been normalized, but are they really? If the last six months are any indication, Cuba will fall far short of meeting these criteria, which means that the EU will have to decide what it wants to do.

As long as the Castro regime continues to incarcerate hundreds of political prisoners, maintains strict control over all form of media, denies its citizens the right to travel and refuses to allow free and fair elections, then democratic governments must use the means at their disposal to push for change. This issue has contributions from leaders of the Cuban opposition, such as Oswaldo Paya, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, as well as a timely piece from the most famous blogger on the island, Yoani Sanchez. There is also a piece of former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar about what lessons Cuba could learn from the Central and Eastern European countries that have made the transition to democracy and free market capitalism. There is also a survey that was conducted with people in Havana that allows them to express what they would like to see happen.

At this point the promises of the reforms and the daily realities on the island simply don’t match up. Raul knew when he took the reigns from his brother that he had a short amount of time to consolidate his power and to convince people that things were improving. Raul has proven at this point that he can take charge, but given that his advice to the people of the island is that “we must get used to not only receiving good news.” Does he think that things have been so great for the last 20 years?

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