New Internationalist


November 2007
Mark Henley / Panos
Mark Henley / Panos

In Havana, the Cuban capital, you can run your own private restaurant but it cannot, by law, contain any more than 12 chairs and you are not permitted to serve beef or lobster, deemed the exclusive preserve of state-run restaurants. At non-state restaurants in Matanzas no chairs are permitted at all – customers must either stand or take their food away with them. This is the free market in one of the world’s last communist strongholds.

Since the early 1990s, in response to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc and thus the catastrophic loss of 85 per cent of Cuba’s trade, the State has been playing a game of stick or twist with the economy, gambling with the principles of the Revolution. The trick has been to bet only in small amounts, using just enough capitalist reform to allow the economy to expand and generate sufficient wealth to support the enormous welfare state. With economic growth in 2006 at 12.5 per cent, amongst the highest in Latin America, the game is arguably being won – but the gains have come at a cost.

On the streets of Havana there are two relatively common sights that wouldn’t have been seen 20 years ago: cellphones and beggars. Crudely speaking, most Cubans are now divided by their position in relation to tourism, the expansion of which has brought the trappings of a class system and a distorted job market. Those getting ahead are renting rooms or running restaurants and, in contrast to the recent past, entrepreneurial skills are now more useful than a degree. Doctors are driving taxis and teachers are waiting tables. The quality of life for the most successful entrepreneurs has undoubtedly improved in the last 10 years. Meanwhile innumerable families live in desperately overcrowded apartment buildings, surviving on state wages that barely cover basic necessities. Cuban society now has winners and losers and its people are caught somewhere between the capitalist devil and the deep red sea.

Yet the Cuban Revolution has survived. There remains an equality amongst Cubans more dominant than the differences which separate them. All Cuban citizens still enjoy free education, free healthcare and a level of rationing that, uniquely in Latin America, ensures no-one suffers from malnutrition. Many complain of falling standards, particularly in the health service, but the shortages of medicines and textbooks can be most directly attributed to the US economic blockade, still stubbornly maintained over 45 years since it was established.

Cuban citizens are still denied certain basic freedoms. The entire national press is effectively a Government mouthpiece, while the pervading feeling of paranoia, fomented by an extensive network of surveillance, is best reflected in the common habit of criticizing the regime only in hushed tones. All Cubans, not just political opposition groups, suffer from the State desire to control the flow of people and information in and out of the country – hence the ban on home internet connections (though email is permitted) and the system of checks necessary for anyone leaving the island.

Though Fidel Castro is still widely respected, many associate his death, quite possibly imminent, as an opportunity for change. While many in the Miami exile community wait to celebrate a perceived new era with the passing of Fidel, in Cuba the post-Fidel era has effectively already begun. Though Raúl Castro is still officially only the acting President, having taken over in August 2006 when his brother was hospitalized, the reality is that Fidel will be too physically weak ever to run the country again. Cuba under Raúl has already begun to take shape with further liberalizing economic reforms and a less hardline approach to political dissidents, but there is a difference in emphasis rather than a complete rethink of policy. The million-dollar question is not what happens in Cuba when Fidel dies but what happens in Washington.

Matt Norman
Cuba Fact File
Leader President Fidel Castro; Acting President Raúl Castro.
Economy GNI per capita figures for Cuba are meaningless. The World Bank first guessed at a figure of $1,170 in 1988 and this has, ludicrously, been cited unchanged by UN bodies every year since then.
Monetary unit Cuban peso and convertible peso.
Main exports Sugar, nickel, tobacco, biotechnology and medicine, citrus fruits, coffee, rum, fish.
Main imports Cuba’s biggest import is 90,000 barrels of oil a day from Venezuela, its closest economic and political ally. The tourism and nickel industries have been boosted by strong economic links forged with countries such as China, India, Spain and Canada. Small-scale private enterprise continues to flourish despite the restrictions put on it.
People 11.3 million. Annual population growth rate 0.4%. People per square kilometre 102 (UK 246).
Health Infant mortality 6 per 1,000 live births (Haiti 84, US 6). The doctor-patient ratio is 1 per 170 head of population (in US it is 1 per 188).
Environment Real advances in the last 10 years, such as fitting all Cuban homes with energy-saving lightbulbs. According to a World Wildlife Fund report in 2003 Cuba was the only country in the world maintaining ecologically ‘sustainable development’.
Culture A Hispanic Caribbean mix descended from European settlers, African slaves and other immigrant groups: a fusion of Spanish, African and North American influences, with a long tradition of nationalism.
Religion Traditionally Catholic though less fervently than in much of Latin America and a markedly secular State. Afro-Cuban religion, particularly Santeria, is as popular as Catholicism.
Language Spanish
Sources World Guide, State of the World’s Children, Human Development Report
Last profiled link March 1996
Cuba ratings in detail
Censorship and political prisoners are both realities of Cuban life, though initial signs are that under Raul treatment of dissident groups may soften.
Previously reviewed
Income distribution
All Cubans are provided with a minimum level of housing, food, healthcare and education; capitalist reforms and the tourist trade have introduced inequalities.
Previously reviewed
Life expectancy
78 years (Haiti 52, US 78) – testament to the excellent health service, though this has suffered in recent years.
Previously reviewed
100 per cent; one of the Revolution’s greatest achievements. Cuba has also been instrumental in the success of literacy campaigns elsewhere in Latin America, notably Bolivia and Venezuela.
Previously reviewed
Position of women
Though the State has promoted the status and empowerment of women, an intrinsically macho culture has been reflected in the heavy-handed reaction to prostitution since it resurfaced. Men dominate the top political positions.
Previously reviewed
Sexual minorities
The era of heavy repression now over, cultural and legal changes have led to greater acceptance of sexual diversity. Leading Cuban gay rights activist Mariela Castro is the daughter of Raúl Castro.
NI Assessment (Politics)
Caught somewhere between capitalism and communism and under the intense restraints of the US economic embargo, the focus for the Government remains how best to sustain a fair and equal society, albeit on its own terms. Its major shortcomings are the restrictions on individual freedoms but life for most in Cuba is far better than for the poor in countless more ‘democratic’ developing countries – and even some developed ones.

This column was published in the November 2007 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Previously reviewed2
Income distribution4
Previously reviewed4
Life expectancy5
Previously reviewed5
Previously reviewed5
Position of women3
Previously reviewed4
Sexual minorities3
NI Assessment (Politics)4

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