People & Power

Cuba Year Zero

How will improving relations between communist Cuba and the capitalist US affect the lives of people on both sides?

Scroll to watch part one of Cuba Year Zero 

Last year, the United States flag was raised in Cuba for the first time in more than five decades, as diplomatic relations between the two states were unfrozen and the American embassy in Havana reopened.

This dramatic turnaround was preceded by a series of previously unthinkable shifts in policy enacted by the Cuban government, now led by Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul.

The president has been opening up Cuba’s economy since 2010, permitting Cubans to open private businesses and buy and sell property, while foreign companies can now invest in the island nation.

In three reports to be broadcast this month, we look at the reforms that appear to be bringing a return to capitalism ever closer and ask what these changes mean for Cuban citizens and the future of their socialist state.

In part one of Cuba Year Zero, we explore what it means for Cuba’s socialism to make peace with the US government and ask if this decision reflects recognition by the state of a failure to empower its people.

In part two, we meet members of the revolutionary generation. Inside Cuba, we talk to those who were members of Fidel Castro’s rebel army and sacrificed their individualism to make the revolution succeed.

In Miami, we meet their former enemies: one million Cubans who left the country in the 1960s and formed groups in exile to conspire against the communist government. Both sides must now face the fact that Castro’s Cuba is finally making peace with the United States, thereby ending a struggle which has lasted, and dominated, most of their lives.


By Rodrigo Vazquez

In 2010, some 500,000 Cuban state employees were issued with licences to start private businesses, among them a group of flower-sellers who operate at a major crossroads in downtown Havana.

Today, the self-employed sellers have become considerably better off than their counterparts who continue to work for the state. “They have beautiful things … they always sell out first,” one state seller said, lamenting the lack of diversity in stock provided to him by the government. But he, too, sees the economic changes and rapprochement with the United States as positive steps towards a better life for all in Cuba. “I think it’s great. I have a lot of faith in that,” he said.

“We’ve been told that capitalism … won’t solve the world’s problems, [but] now we have the proof that the world is being destroyed,” Che Guevara’s son Camilo says 

Five years into the reforms, there are three times more restaurants and bars in Havana. But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Cuban would-be entrepreneurs have had to adjust to commercial realities that were previously alien to this country. New-found competition coupled with a lack of low-cost suppliers has caused many businesses to close their doors almost as soon as they opened.

In an attempt to better supply the market, the Cuban government has begun turning state companies into private cooperatives. But again, a lack of business acumen has prevented many from realising their potential. “Nobody knows anything, we all lack the training,” says a worker from one such business, CNA Textiles. But despite these complaints, the employees at this cooperative have seen their income triple since it moved from state control to the private sector.

Amid such dramatic changes, observers might be forgiven for assuming that, these days, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara’s war on profit-oriented capitalism is just a slogan on a wall. But not everyone is happy with the new rules.

“Ever since I can remember, we’ve been told that capitalism is a means of production that won’t solve the world’s problems,” none other than Che Guevara’s son Camilo said. “Now we have the proof that the world is being destroyed and that the human species is in danger.”

But for their part, the authorities insist that opening up the economy won’t stop Cuba from doing things differently. One example of an alternative model frequently put forward is the development of organic farms set up in the 1990s to boost food production. The Alamar cooperative began 20 years ago and has been remarkably successful, not just by providing something to eat for those who live and work in its fields; the profits it makes are also used to subsidise transport and electricity while providing free education and healthcare for the surrounding community.

A US and Cuban flag hang from the same balcony in Old Havana, Cuba [AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa]
A US and Cuban flag hang from the same balcony in Old Havana, Cuba [AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa]

But regardless of these achievements, Cuba is already showing signs that it is not impervious to the familiar driving forces that characterise capitalism in the rest of the western hemisphere. The new opportunities brought about by Raul Castro’s reforms have begun to create a burgeoning middle class, but at the same time the government has been cutting down on social programmes for the poor.

Meanwhile, tourism has become the main channel for attracting much-needed US dollars, prompting the government to invest heavily in this area, and creating a bubble within which earnings far outstrip any other industry.

Once again, downtown Havana is showing the kind of discrepancies in wealth between its citizens that were last seen before the revolution. While one former guerrilla fighter, who entered Havana with Fidel Castro’s forces in 1959, lived her final years in crowded squalor, four blocks away, one of her neighbours owns one of the city’s most successful restaurants, which recently played host to six presidents in a single night.