Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Dispatches: Reform and Change, Cuban Style

Cuba’s 53-year-old revolutionary socialist system is in transition. Toward what, though, is anyone’s guess.

Daily bread: Street vendors, like this bread seller, have proliferated as Cuba attempts to open up. (STR/AFP/Getty)

Havana, Cuba

One hot afternoon during a visit to Cuba in March 2000, a traveling companion and I hopped into a tricycle cab for a ride from the Hotel Nacional to Old Havana. The young man pedaling the cab overheard us talking and turned his head to ask, “Canadian?”

No, somos Americanos,” I responded.

His face lit up. “Every day when I wake up,” he blurted out, “I dream of going to America.”

Orlando, whose name has been changed for this article, was in his early 30s. An ophthalmologist by training, he was pedaling a cab because he could not support his wife and three-year-old daughter on his government salary of $20 a month.

We hadn’t gotten very far when we were pulled over by a policeman. He walked Orlando some distance away from us and after several minutes of what looked like tense conversation, Orlando returned to inform us that he had broken the law by taking foreigners in his pedal cab, which was only for Cuban nationals. Only government-owned taxis were allowed to pick up tourists.

He would be fined 40 Cuban pesos, he said, and his license to operate would be suspended. He didn’t know if or when he would get it back. He was allowed to drop us at the nearest cab stand.

Today, despite the liberalization of the Cuban economy under President Raúl Castro, pedal cabs continue to be driven by well-educated professionals whose government salaries are the same as they were 12 years ago.

But there is one difference: they can take anyone for a ride. Drivers like Orlando queue up outside the tourist hotels waiting for fares, and they don’t need to worry about the police. Many other seemingly arbitrary restrictions imposed by the government have disappeared as well. Paladares—private restaurants run out of owners’ homes—began to appear in the late 1990s, but they were limited to 12 seats and could only employ family members and serve fish, pork or chicken (just the legs and thighs). Violators risked fines or indefinite shutdowns. At the time, chicken breasts, shrimp and lobster were reserved exclusively for government-run restaurants. (I once asked a paladar owner what he did with the chicken breasts, and he answered, “They are for Fidel!”)

Today, paladares are allowed to hire as many employees as they want, and they compete head-to-head with government-run restaurants. They are almost always better—offering better food and much better service. (There is no incentive for good service in government-run businesses.) It seems that the government doesn’t like the competition; recently, it put into place a rule prohibiting tour guides—all of whom work for one of three government-owned companies—from taking groups to paladares.

Of course, as our ride with Orlando demonstrated, even when the rules were in place, few people bothered to follow them. As a Cuban friend explained to me recently, “In Cuba it is impossible to make a living without breaking the law.”

Life Under Socialist “Adjustments”

Cuba is clearly in transition, but no one seems to know where it is headed.

The recently enacted economic reforms, or “adjustments to the socialist model,” as the political class calls them, are in my view modest and desultory. Skeptics say they are “mere bones thrown to the masses to forestall an Arab Spring,” though several observers consider them an indication that fundamental change is under way.

However well-intentioned, many of the reforms seem not very well thought-out.

One outcome of the reforms is that Cubans can now buy and sell their homes; before, they could only pass them along to immediate family members. Assuming, though, that the reform was intended to foster a real estate market, two other ingredients are vital: savings and housing stock. In Cuba, there is a paucity of both. Indeed, a chronic housing shortage, especially in Havana, where almost 20 percent of the country’s population lives, is one of the island’s most pervasive problems.

Virtually no new housing has been built since the Soviets abandoned Cuba over 20 years ago. Much of the existing housing stock is, to put it politely, substandard. Crumbling walls and exposed wiring are commonplace. Entire floors of living space have been added to many of the high-ceilinged mansions that line the Prado, a major pedestrian boulevard in Old Havana. With no external or structural alterations to support them, the houses are not always strong enough to bear the additional loads. Earlier this year, such a building housing several families in Centro Habana—one of the worst-maintained neighborhoods in the Cuban capital—collapsed, leaving four people dead and six injured. In the wake of the collapse, the government began granting subsidies to people who need to fix their homes and lack the necessary funds.

The housing shortage is exacerbated by the fact that Cubans must live close to their jobs, because an equally pervasive problem is a lack of adequate transportation. Outside the cities, Cubans stand by the side of the roadways with their arms extended, waving pesos at passing drivers instead of sticking out their thumbs. Drivers select passengers by the color of their bills. Inside the cities, streets are often clogged with old cars belching black smoke and a variety of non-mechanized vehicles—including horse- and mule-drawn carts, especially in the smaller cities and villages.

One welcome transportation development has been the retirement of the “camel bus,” a uniquely Cuban contrivance designed to move large numbers of people around Havana. The camel is a double-humped cabin, made by welding the shells of two buses together and pulled along by a tractor truck. Camel buses had no seats and might pack in, standing, as many as 300 hot and sweaty passengers at a time. In 2007, while serving as interim president, Raúl Castro began replacing the camel buses with sleek new air-conditioned Yutong buses from China.

Cause for Optimism

There is a palpable dynamism in Cuba today that wasn’t apparent 10 or 12 years ago.

The Cubans I spoke with  in my recent visit this year seem sanguine about the reforms. “We have to be optimistic,” one told me. Tenemos que cambiar (“Cuba must change,”) said another. These common refrains seem to suggest an optimism born of desperation—a sense that things must get better because they cannot get any worse.

In Old Havana, thanks in large part to financial support from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a renaissance is under way, with historic and residential buildings being restored and tourism and people-to-people exchanges bringing more people in than Cuba is equipped to handle. Most of the restoration is currently focused on hotels, museums and other revenue-producing projects. The Museum of the Revolution, housed in what was once the presidential palace, has undergone a gorgeous facelift. After years of work by one- and two-man crews using crude hand tools, the restoration of Plaza Vieja—a complex of residential, commercial and cultural spaces dating from the 17th century and combining three centuries of different architectural styles—is complete. The government plans to use the funds generated by these enterprises to pay for the restoration of residential properties.

The historic and culture-rich cities of Cienfuegos and Matanzas are clean, well-ordered and bustling. At midday sidewalks are full with people in motion. In late afternoon, children play baseball and soccer in the parks and plazas. Evenings, old men play chess and dominoes. Vendors sell fresh fruit, fresh meat, peanuts in white paper cones, and fried dough. From noon on, there is music playing in every café, bar and restaurant. Locals walking by stop to listen and dance a few steps to “Yolanda” or another Cuban classic before continuing along their journey.

And everywhere, resilient and resourceful Cubans are turning the merest concessions to their advantage. Paladares and casas particulares (bed-and-breakfast establishments) keep popping up. There are more street markets than before, and they sell a greater variety of goods. In agriculture, new rules allow farmers to sell produce directly to hotels and restaurants instead of only to the government; some have also begun to form private cooperatives.

Still, the economic reforms are mostly confined to small operations in the service sector, while manufacturing and other “strategic” sectors remain state-owned and operated—with all the inefficiencies that entails.

Even if the pace of reform is slow, Cubans are, at least now, more willing to speak their minds and to openly criticize the government. (Of course, by “openly” I only mean that Cubans might now speak their minds to strangers, whereas previously they would be very cautious about expressing political opinions to people they didn’t know, including other Cubans.) One common complaint is that “the elites”—party officials and other highly placed government workers—enjoy special privileges not available to the average Cuban. Another is that Cubans cannot travel freely abroad. Many dream, like Orlando did, of going to America—or, for that matter, anywhere that offers greater freedom and opportunity. When they get there, many stay permanently; the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 legally entitles nearly all Cuban nationals who land on U.S. soil to remain in the country and seek permanent resident status after one year of continuous physical presence.

Now there is the rumbling of change on the other side of the Florida Straits. Just this past spring, Ricardo Alarcón, president of Cuba’s National Assembly and the third most powerful figure in Cuba, announced that the government plans to eliminate travel restrictions. If implemented, it will be even easier for Cubans to emigrate.

The Anti-Embargo Crusaders

Every Cuban with whom I have ever spoken believes the U.S. embargo should be lifted. Some, however, are more fervent than others.

Tomás Rodriguez is an export specialist who works for the Ministry of Trade. His younger brother, Jorge, is a civil engineer working for a joint venture company in Havana. The two have effectively made second careers (albeit volunteer ones) of speaking out against the embargo to visiting Americans, delivering a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation on the history of U.S.–Cuban relations that concludes with a list of “Things we can do to improve U.S.–Cuban relations”—virtually all of which are things Americans can do. The meetings are not set up by Cuban officials, and certainly not by U.S. officials. In Cuba, things like this happen through personal connections and word of mouth. In our case, meetings with the Rodríguez brothers were facilitated by an American friend who plays softball with Jorge.

During a recent visit, when our group met with Jorge and Tomás, the discussion turned to the topic of Internet access in Cuba, which is spotty, unreliable and slow—not to mention expensive. Poor connectivity represents an obvious impediment to economic development on the island.

The Rodríguez brothers, like many of their compatriots, blamed all this on the embargo. They pointed out that fiber-optic cables beneath the Caribbean could provide Cuba with reliable, high-speed Internet service, but because the cables are owned by U.S. companies, the embargo prevents them from servicing Cuba.

This is not entirely true. According to current U.S. regulations, there are two exceptions to the embargo concerning Internet service: one that authorizes U.S. companies to lay fiber-optic cables to Cuba, and one that permits Internet communication service providers (such as Google Talk) to operate in Cuba. However, U.S. companies are prohibited from getting involved in Cuba’s domestic information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure. Unfortunately, for now, the U.S. Treasury—which is charged with enforcing the embargo—has interpreted much of the equipment necessary for connecting the now-permitted fiber-optic cable as contributing to Cuba’s domestic ICT, thus prohibiting companies from testing the possibility of the Cuban government’s willingness to open up the sector.

Trapped by Censorship

Famously, Cuba provides free education, including even post-graduate education. But some Cubans feel limited in their ability to exercise their minds through exposure to the wider intellectual world beyond their shores.

“They teach me to think, but they don’t let me think,” complained Yakov (real name withheld), a second-year law student I met in Cienfuegos.

Yakov wants to read the international news for himself and form his own opinions, but he says the government won’t permit him access to that news online. He also complained about e-mail service. He can e-mail within the university system (“but they can read everything”), but when he tries to load Yahoo!’s e-mail service, he gets a persistent error message. While Yakov has access to personal computers through his law school, his Internet capability there is actually more of an intranet—a closed system.

The experience of Yakov is not true for everyone in Cuba. I have a friend in Havana who has a Yahoo! e-mail account and uses it without difficulty. And Tomás Rodríguez insists there is no censorship in Cuba—he says he can read anything he wants to online, “even the Miami Herald.” People have widely incompatible perspectives, each grounded in their own realities. This would suggest that different people have different levels of access to information—different levels of “clearance,” so to speak, depending on who they are and what their job is.

The most common instance of selective application of restrictions is in granting permission for international travel. Some people, like political scientist Rafael Hernández, who has held visiting professorships at a number of American universities, appear able to secure exit visas with little difficulty. Others, like blogger Yoani Sánchez, who is fiercely critical of the regime, have repeatedly been denied permission to leave the country.

I asked Yakov if there would be a job waiting for him when he graduates from law school next year. He said no, but he has friends who will help him find one. He is studying international law and hopes to land a position with one of the joint venture companies that have become increasingly important factors in Cuba’s economic development.

As for the embargo, when I asked Tomás Rodríguez how the average Cuban might benefit from its being lifted, he struggled for a response. Finally he said, “We wouldn’t have to go all the way to China to buy what we need.”

I pointed out that the U.S. goes to China to buy what we need, and pressed him further. “Aren’t you afraid Cuba will become a wholly owned subsidiary of the U.S.?”

“No,” he said emphatically, “Cuba is not for sale.”

At the close of the Cuban Communist Party’s Sixth Congress in April 2011, during which many rumored economic reforms became official policy, Rafael Hernández, the political scientist, wrote in an unpublished essay, “[Cubans] want more markets but at prices accessible to all; a smaller state, but one that continues to provide education, health care, and social security on a first-world level. […] They aspire to a socialism without poverty and with real democracy, which allows its citizens not only to be heard but to participate in decisions and to control political institutions from below.”

It’s a rosy dream. Though the reforms announced thus far will likely not be enough to help Cubans achieve it, a further opening of the Cuban economy to foreign and private investment seems inevitable, and from there many of these changes may follow.

Yet I worry that much of what makes Cuba so special will be lost in the process. Today there is a kind of “preserved in amber” quality about Cuba—the classic American cars being the most conspicuous examples—as a result of its isolation from capitalist consumer culture. There are no golden arches, no strip malls, no big box retailers, no litter. As well, the embargo has created a subtle siege mentality (sometimes not so subtle when the regime wants to use it to make excuses for its own shortcomings). The upside of this is a palpable sense of community—a solidarity among the people that creates warmth and has a certain charm. As Cuba opens up to the outside world, I hope it also retains its close-knit identity.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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