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A new Cuba in the making

Cuba
Politics
cubaintro.jpg

Behind the vintage taxi is one of Havana’s new Japanese-made co-operative buses. And behind that – the city’s iconic Capitolio, also being renovated. © Vanessa Baird

Say Cuba, and you will provoke some of the most polarized responses, even from people who have never been there.

The tropical island nation has come to symbolize so much – depending on your perspective.

But beyond dispute is its most remarkable story of survival. Few could have imagined that the country’s communist government, led by Fidel Castro, could have continued for more than a few days after the collapse of the Soviet Union that was its mainstay.

And yet, 23 years on, the Communist Party is still in charge – albeit with a slightly younger and smaller Castro at the helm.

But Cuba is changing. The government of 83-year-old Raúl Castro, who took over from brother Fidel when the latter became ill in 2006, is in the throes of implementing a 311-point reform plan that could alter the country beyond recognition. It has been described as a ‘life or death blueprint to save the revolution’.1

Outside Cuba the changes are referred to as ‘reforms’; inside, the official term is ‘updates’. It’s a semantic difference that may seem small, but is politically significant. The task being undertaken is not, the government claims, a turn to capitalism but a necessary restructuring to adapt Cuban socialism – as it’s called on the island – to a changing world circumstance and to ensure its survival.

Official recognition that change was needed has been a while coming. For years ordinary Cubans have been ground down by daily hassles and privations – queues, shortages, petty bureaucracy, over-regulation, corruption and endless promises of a better life that never seemed to materialize. Citizen discontent came across loud and clear during a series of public consultations in 2011, in which almost nine million people participated.

Pithy and pragmatic, Raúl Castro does not mince his words. This is the last chance, he says, for the ‘historic generation’ to correct past errors and secure the future of the revolution’s socialist development. Past ‘dogmas’ and ‘failed schemes’ must be rejected. Inefficiency and cover-ups by political and managerial élites will no longer be tolerated. He has sacked ministers who were considered his friends. The younger Castro has even lambasted his party’s love of ‘pomposity’ and ‘empty slogans’.2

Fidel Castro, who recently turned 88, is said to be supportive of the reform process launched by his brother. In an unguarded moment, the revolutionary icon admitted to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, ‘the Cuban model does not even work for us any more’, when asked whether he was still keen to export it.1

The transformation is now well under way and expected to continue through the next few years.

Much is already apparent. There is more personal freedom. Cubans can travel abroad, open small businesses, buy or sell their homes or cars, and are even permitted to buy new foreign cars – if they can stump up $120,000 for a model that retails at $30,000 in Europe.

Dysfunctional state companies are being broken up, jobs deemed surplus to requirement are being phased out, and land (all owned by the state) is being distributed to thousands of small farmers. In April this year the government changed the rules to make Cuba more attractive to foreign investors.

So what do the reforms – or updates – mean for this rare outpost of communism? Is Cuba actually throwing in the towel and giving way to capitalism? Will the social gains of the revolution – such as universal free healthcare and education – be sacrificed?

Is this the beginning of the end for one-party rule? What about relations with that hostile neighbour, the US?

And, most important, what do ordinary Cubans make of it all?

We visit the country to try to find out.

  1. Marc Frank, Cuban Revelations, University Press of Florida, 2013.

  2. Stephen Ludlam, ‘Conference Proceedings’, International Journal of Cuban Studies, Autumn /Winter 2012.