This Time is Different for Cuba’s Economic Reform
A question many Cuba observers ask is whether the current wave of economic reform is a mere repetition of a cycle in which the Castro government shows signs of openness for a while but it is ready to close them as soon as it finds a way to survive without them. This skepticism is legitimate because several times in the post 1959 history of Cuba, Fidel Castro’s government opened spaces to market practices in the middle of a crisis, only to close them as soon as the situation improved. In the 1990’s, this was the case when originally many Cubans attempted to create a vibrant private sector but their hopes were crushed by asphyxiating taxes, regulations and a hostile attitude toward the market.
For decades, any political debate about economic reforms in Cuba was biased in favor of the communist experiments. If someone advocated anti-market policies, but which would lead to economic disaster, he or she might be reprimanded for lack of realism but the leaders would look with benevolence to his mistakes since they were the result of some revolutionary fervor. On the contrary, if one advocated pro-market reforms, he could have been denounced as a follower of a capitalist deviation (I personally know the experience) and therefore in need of ideological re-education.
In Cuba, Fidel Castro is never a force to underestimate. The historic leader of the revolution is stubborn and there are things he will only accept with bitterness and pain. Nobody can guarantee that he cannot protest or lash out against some of the current changes.
But Fidel Castro is not at the helm of the Cuban state anymore and does not represent by himself the minimal winning coalition of Cuban politics. The last session of the National Assembly indicates that Cuba is under a new administration. The indicators of the power shift are evident. The new leadership is discussing less about the revolutionary goals and achievements and more about economic performance than in any previous session of the Cuban parliament. Ministers know that they are not in their position for life. They were promoted not by helicopter, as Fidel Castro used to do with passionate and young revolutionary leaders, but taking into account their years and performance serving the government.
The transition from Fidel Castro to Raul Castro has occurred. The younger Castro is creating his own political dynamics, beginning by the consolidation of a new mindset in which economic reform is the priority. In the new narrative, the central responsibility for the problems of Cuban society is associated with internal problems, not negative foreign influences.
In an illustrative anecdote, Raul Castro made a reference to the achievements of the Vietnamese socialist market economy, criticizing the easy justification of some Cuban communist leaders who blame every Cuban flaw and inefficiency on the United States policy.
“After the aggressive U.S. war on Vietnam,” Raul Castro told the National Assembly, “the heroic, undefeated Vietnamese people asked if we could teach them how to grow coffee and off we went; we taught them, we shared our experience. Today Vietnam is the second largest exporter of coffee in the world. And a Vietnamese official said to his Cuban colleague, ‘How is it that you taught us to grow coffee and now you are buying it from us?’ I don't know what the Cuban might have answered. Surely, he said, ‘The blockade.’”
The sarcastic tone used by Raul Castro was part of a demand to the party leaders to either adjust to the new times or resign from their power positions. Talking about the emergent self employment, Raul Castro defined the role of the PCC and the government as facilitating the work, not generating stigmas and prejudices against it. Addressing the issue of the anti-private property bias in many of the party leaders, Raul said that: “it is fundamental that we modify the existing negative attitude that quite a few of us have towards this form of private employment”.
Addressing the skeptics, the new president assured that this time “there will be no going back”. In his speech he also called for new understanding of the economy and the new conditions in which taxes, not direct administration and control by the government, would be the main redistributive tool of the system. This is a major step in the clarification of the economic relations between Cuban economic actors.
There are reasons to believe that this time the chances of economic reform are higher. It is the first time that reformers within the government have a road map (the PCC guidelines) in which there is a proposition to change the state centered paradigm. It is not by happenstance that most market oriented bureaucrats and intellectuals are supporting the document. It proposes the creation of a real estate market, the expansion of the non-state sector, as well as giving to the cooperative and private property an irreversible character. In the past, these ideas have landed several Cubans in trouble. Today, it is the official discourse of academics from different think tanks associated with the Cuban government, intellectual publications and last but not least, the military under Raul Castro. All these segments of Cuban society have talked about necessary reforms emulating the changes in Vietnam and China.
This is a difference the “lineamientos” (“guidelines”) made. The “guidelines” are a Communist Party blueprint, written with the contribution of conservatives and hardliners under Machado Ventura’s guidance, to steal and claim for themselves the issues that reformers and even dissidents have raised for decades. Through the lineamientos, the PCC elites and the FAR high command and technocratic groups are calling the country, particularly, those interested in major economic changes, to contribute and participate in a reform process in which they plan to change significantly the economic landscape but defending their political control and privileges.
Raul Castro made clear that securing the continuity of “the revolution” ( code word for the current Cuban government) will require a more market oriented economy to deal with an array of long standing inefficiencies and design failures the Cuban economy has since 1960. This is not only a problem of better administration, but of replacing a model that is not working anymore- As Fidel Castro recognized in a slip of the tongue some months ago.
Unfortunately, the United States has not reacted to these significant reform steps beyond mildly positive State Department declarations. Cuban reformers are looking at an American policy toward the island, that even under President Obama, a leader who attracted their highest hopes, is behaving erratically, without addressing concrete problems of the bilateral relations or helping their marketization and liberalization push. It seems as new ideas and adjustments are needed not only in Cuba but also in Washington policy towards the island.