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Cuba's Reformation?

Adam Raney finds a country reforming itself - slowly but meaningfully.
Last modified: 7 Feb 2014 19:28
Man stops for a pick-me-up at a cane juice stand. Price for the sweet drink: around 4 cents. [Adam Raney]

My team and I traveled to Cuba the last week of January to cover one of the biggest events the island has hosted – the summit of Caribbean and Latin American States, or CELAC. It was a chance for Cuba to show off for the media and the world.

But the changes taking place across Cuba are more interesting than the one-off conference. The catchword in Cuba these days is "reform".

That’s usually used to describe a wave of incremental but serious changes in the state-run economy since Raúl Castro took over in 2006. There are now dozens of private restaurants, fledgling entrepreneurs like hair stylists and a nascent real estate market. Quality and wages are much higher in the private restaurants overflowing with tour crowds.

Some Cubans too clearly have more cash in their pockets. You see them at the restaurants that serve seared tuna, oysters and imported wine. You bump into them on flights into the country from Mexico City, Miami or Barcelona.

Much of the private capital for restaurants, bars and cafes comes from Cubans living abroad who funnel resources to family and friends back on the island.

But despite the arrival of chained and limited capitalism, the government has been able to keep these reforms from leading to meaningful political change.

Ahead of the CELAC summit dozens of dissidents and activists were pre-emptively detained to make sure they didn’t protest or disrupt the generally staid conference.

The UN Secretary General traveled to Cuba for the first time to attend the summit. He said the UN is hoping to accompany Cuba in its transformation process. But he also levied criticism at the communist country.

"I emphasised the importance of playing a greater role in enhancing human rights, and providing spaces for people's right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association, and the cases of arbitrary detention occurring in Cuba," he said.

Still there are signs of a slow opening up here.

In a nationally televised speech in December Cuban President Raul Castro said there was a need for "mutual respect" between the US and Cuba and he said there was a chance for a "civilised relationship". These are subtle but meaningful changes in rhetoric.

What a "civilised relationship" would look like isn’t really clear. But I imagine for Cubans it would mean the dismantling of the 52-year old US trade embargo against Cuba.

(The embargo is called a blockade in Cuba and is also referred to as the longest genocide in human history – so for now a civilised relationship seems a bit further down the road.)

One small space that's been open for some time is a monthly debate held at a state-owned café in one of Havana's upscale neighborhoods.

January's debate was quite tame – it was on the problems for historians writing about the Cuban Revolution. Still it drew people who expressed meaningful and provocative concerns with the government.

One debater said it had been a big problem that the revolutionaries had no experience.

"What did Fidel Castro and Che Guevara know about running a government?"

Another said he wanted representative democracy in Cuba. These are opinions that most people outside of Cuba assume can't be discussed without risking arrest. And, frankly, such talk has often led to arrests and imprisonment of dissidents. But for some reason they are allowed at this forum.

'An incipient thaw'

Former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray says there are signs of change everywhere.

"The focus outside of Cuba is on this contradiction between dissidents and the government but there are a lot of things in between, spaces opening up."

Alzugaray also says it is clear that relations between the US and Cuba are changing – albeit slowly.

"I think right now is an incipient thaw in the relationship. There are soundbites coming both from Washington and Havana that are less hostile and adversarial."

While there is debate over what political reform is possible, it's the economy that concerns most people. Many Cubans still live on salaries of around 20 dollars a month. It's nearly impossible to get by on that, even taking into account they don't pay rent and buy most of their staples at heavily subsidized markets.

Meanwhile, there are signs that planners are reaching the limits of their power to get people off the government payroll. Some 85 percent of Cubans still work for the state – whether that's the government or state-owned businesses. The government's goal is to have 45 percent in the private workforce in three years. That might be a tall order.

Farming and food services have seen the biggest areas of private growth. But how many restaurants can really compete in such a constrained market? There are only so many tourists and Cubans with enough hard currency to shell out 50 dollars on dinner.

The problem is, the government so far has been slow to open other sectors of the economy.

Economist Omar Everleny says there has been a long running problem with government planners.

"The state took over much more of the economy here than in other socialists countries. The state can't control the whole economy. It shouldn't be running small businesses."

The challenge then is just how much control is the government willing to let go – both in economic and political terms.

The last Thursday of every month organizers from Temas, one of Cuba’s best known magazines, host an open debate on specific topics. It’s one of the few public places for debate in Havana [Adam Raney/Al Jazeera]

(All photos by Adam Raney)