|The 1000 officials gathered in Havana are concerned about inefficiencies in Cuba’s economy [Reuters]|
The footage looked like a high definition version of a Cold War pep rally: Military hardware paraded through the streets of Havana, fighter jets zooming overhead and hundreds of thousands of Cubans celebrating their country’s victory at the Bay of Pigs in 1961.
“The event with which Cuba is celebrating its half century of socialism opened with a salute to the participating troops,” noted Granma International, the Communist Party’s official broadsheet. The march commemorated 50 years since 1,500 CIA-trained exiles, some with links to the US mafia, unsuccessfully attempted to storm the island and overthrow Fidel Castro’s socialist government.
“Children, young people and veterans took part in a symbolic enactment recalling historical achievements of the Cuban people,” Granma newspaper stated.
But historical memory, quintessential Marxist rhetoric and patriotic displays may mask some larger economic challenges bubbling below the surface of Cuban socialism.
Communist Party big wigs are holding their first convention in 14 years from April 16-19. They are debating plans to improve Cuba’s inefficient economy and seem to be relying on some standard prescriptions of capitalist austerity: Firing one million public sector workers, increasing foreign investment in key industries and eliminating some food subsidies.
“The population has wanted changes for some time,” says Stephen Wilkinson, the director of the Centre for Caribbean and Latin American Research at London Metropolitan University. “But there is a great deal of anxiety of what those changes might be.”
Anxiety aside, the Congress has already produced some surprising proposals. Raul Castro, who took over his brother Fidel’s role as president in 2008, stated that top positions in the Communist Party – including his own – should be limited to two five-year terms. One of the Castro boys has ruled Cuban since the revolution in 1959.
It is difficult to know how these decisions transpired or what power relations are at play behind the speeches supporting socialism and the stage managed calls for change.
“The Communist Party is generally very good at keeping its business to itself,” Wilkinson told Al Jazeera, adding that there has been “considerable debate” over some of the proposed reforms.
John Kirk, a professor of Spanish and Latin American studies at Dalhousie University, who has worked as a translator during meetings between Canadian government officials and Cuba’s larger than life former leader Fidel Castro, believes the Communist Party can be roughly separated into two camps.
“One camp, mainly an older group, which is more ideological than pragmatic, believes Cuba can tough it out, the way it has in the past,” Kirk told Al Jazeera. “On the other hand, there is a pragmatic group that wants to maintain the [socialist] model, but [they] want it updated radically with a reduced state role.” Raul Castro is somewhere in the middle, Kirk says.
Fixing the economy
During his two-hour speech at the opening of the congress on Saturday, Castro stated that: “No country or person can spend more than they have. Two plus two is four. Never five, much less six or seven, as we have sometimes pretended.”
Cuba’s economy grew by a meagre 1.5 per cent in 2010, compared with Vietnam’s rate of 6.8 per cent and China’s whopping 10.3 per cent, according to the CIA’s World Fact Book.
Vietnam and China use an economic model where the state maintains absolute political power but businessmen can make money through the capitalist system. The state also plays a key role in managing these fast growing economies.
“The Cubans say they will learn from the Vietnamese model,” but they won’t be embracing it fully, Wilkinson says.
Other analysts agree. “When Deng Xiao Ping [China’s former leader] initiated profound economic reforms, he also sought to change the mindset of the people: ‘to get rich is glorious’,” says Jose Azel, a scholar at the University of Miami in Florida and a critic of Cuban socialism.
“Raul Castro said he couldn’t allow for the accumulation of wealth. Cuba’s reforms are nowhere near the reforms introduced in China,” Azel told Al Jazeera.
Azel, like many Cuba watchers in the US, scoffs at the proposals introduced by Raul Castro to spurn small business development.
“They are authorising precisely 178 economic activities in the service sector, including making paper flowers to sell to tourists and fixing umbrellas. These are going to relieve the government of their payroll, but they are not serious reforms to bring about economic development.”
And, while condemnation of all things socialist from Cuba analysts in Miami is to be expected, some of the changes outlined in the Draft Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy a 32-page plan for charting Cuba’s economic future, border on the absurd.
Sanctioned trade 110 is the repair of box springs, which, in the policy document, should not be confused with trade 116, the repair of mattresses. Business people can be licensed to peel natural fruit, under trade 158, but they would need a separate license to sell fruit at kiosks under trade 142. Trade 156 is “being a dandy” which might mean working as a male escort, as the technical definition is unknown, according to Jose Azel.
Strong public services
Aspiring entrepreneurs who want to go into a field outside of the 178 approved activities presumably will not be able to get a business license and will be forced to operate in the burgeoning black market.
While the economy is weak, the country’s public health and education systems have won praise from the United Nations and other international monitors.
According to UN figures from the year 2000, the rate of literacy among people aged 15 and older in Cuba was 97 per cent, compared to 99 per cent in Canada and the US, 96 per cent in Costa Rica, and 83 per cent in the Dominican Republic.
Life expectancy on the communist island is also high for a developing country: 77.7 years, compared with 78.37 years in the US, according to CIA figures.
These positive public health and education outcomes are directly linked to Cuba’s model of political and economic organisation.
While fixing the Cuban economy will be difficult through regulated small business growth, the country does have economic strengths: Mainly tourism, mining and – perhaps – oil exploitation. And, the island faces unique challenges.
“Unlike [China or] Vietnam, Cuba has faced 50 years of financial and commercial blockades from the US,” says Isaac Saney, the author of Cuba: A Revolution in Motion.
Until Cuba and the US can reach some compromise on the future of their relationship, broader economic and political reforms will be difficult for Cuba to enact unilaterally.
“The US says it will only lift the [trade] embargo when there is a government of which the Castro brothers have no part and the electoral system meets the requirements of US law,” says Wilkinson, the London Metropolitan University professor. “Sovereign people can decide their own destiny in their own territory,” he adds, critiquing the US for trying to impose its world view on its island neighbour.
As Cubans watched speeches from the Party Congress and celebrated their victory over US-backed forces during the Bay of Pig’s invasion, the National Security Archive, a research organisation based at George Washington University, launched a lawsuit against the CIA for refusing to release documents on the military operation in 1961. The suit alleges that the CIA is “holding history hostage”.
Documents, it seems, are not the only items held back by history. Iconic revolutionary Che Guevara once thanked America for the CIA-backed fiasco: “Before the invasion, the revolution was shaky. Now it’s stronger than ever.”
Like the 1961 invasion, some experts believe the current US trade embargo and other anti-Castro activities are having the opposite of their desired effect.
If nothing else, the Castro brothers can continue using the embargo as a political tool, blaming the island’s political and economic problems on its northern neighbour.
And that isn’t so dandy for Cubans who want well-paying jobs and more political freedom.