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Havana: The State Retreats

José Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
prieto_1-052611.jpg
Mark Gong
A woman taking down laundry in the building that houses the Paladar La Guarida in Central Havana shortly after Raúl Castro came to power, April 2008; photograph by Mark Gong

1.

When I picked up my ticket for the only nonstop New York–Havana flight, I was given a list of the goods I could take: ten kilos of medicine and up to twenty kilos of food, duty free. While it’s true that Cuba suffers from the US embargo, it’s also the US and its Cuban exile community that keep the country afloat. The day of the flight, many of my fellow passengers were loaded down with heavy bundles of food and medicine, plasma TV sets in their original packaging, audio equipment, and domestic appliances. In 2010, 324,000 visitors arrived in Cuba on direct flights from the United States like this one, and several economists calculate that remittances to Cuba from the US total more than a billion dollars annually, about 35 percent of the country’s annual foreign exchange inflow.

All that help still isn’t enough. After landing at José Martí International Airport, I find the city in a virtual state of blackout, the celebrated corner of 23rd and L, Havana’s Times Square, empty at 10 PM. It’s as if a catastrophe has struck. There is a constant, ominous feeling of abandonment and crisis. My impression doesn’t much differ from the diagnosis delivered on December 18—days after my arrival—to the Cuban Parliament by the country’s current leader, Raúl Castro: “Either we rectify our course or the time for teetering along on the brink runs out and we go down. And we will go down…[with] the effort of entire generations.”

Certainly the signs of this deep crisis have been in the air for at least twenty years. What’s clear now is that it’s not enough to go on blaming the American bloqueo or the fall of the Soviet Union. Something is wrong with the system itself. This could be glimpsed in the startling comment made by Fidel Castro to the US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg and the Latin American scholar Julia Sweig last August: “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”

What model is he talking about? The Soviet model of forced nationalization. The Cuban Revolution was among other things a cure for the chronic weakness of the Cuban state prior to 1959. The new, postrevolutionary state would take upon itself all that previous governments of Cuba had done so badly. The example of the Soviet Union, with triumphs such as the 1957 launch of Sputnik, seemed to indicate that this was a promising way forward, and it had the added appeal to Cuba’s unelected rulers of calling for government by a single party, virtually without opposition, and the pulverization of civil society.

Now, on my first visit to Cuba in ten years, I had the chance to observe the first signs of the inverse process: the dismantling of this gigantic state, visibly in retreat. I saw the detritus left behind: the disaster of a dysfunctional economy and a deep financial crisis aggravated by a dual currency system. All amid the growing discontent of the population and surging dissidence.

2.

In Havana I buy every bit of printed news on sale at the kiosk near the casa particular where I’m renting a room. Such an unusual interest in publications almost no one reads immediately gives me away as a visitor from abroad. I ask for the recently released official publication “Proyecto de Lineamientos de la Política Económica y Social” (“Draft Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy”), but it’s sold out, the elderly vendor informs me: “All Havana is reading it.” In the end, I buy it secondhand, for ten times the original price, from a passerby who has overheard the conversation.

It’s a twenty-nine-page pamphlet whose 291 points set forth the coming “update” of the Cuban model. These points, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma affirms, were distilled from the vast consulta, or survey, Raúl Castro declared would take place on July 26, 2007, when “more than four million Cubans raised more than a million points.” By and large, the guidelines attempt to reduce the cumbersome size of the state to make it more compact and less costly.

The crux of the debate, I gather, after penetrating the technical jargon all Havana is reading and discussing as if it were a best-selling novel, is whether a new role can be assigned to the state: Can it be imagined more as referee than as star player while ensuring that it doesn’t lose control? There is of course no question that the governing party must remain in power and “safeguard the conquests of the revolution.”

I come to see that in fact the Party is trying to adjust to a transformation that began without much government participation, something the Cuban people started doing on their own. The government is like a general who mandates an “orderly retreat” when his army is being crushed. The “Guidelines” are for keeping up appearances.

3.

Life under socialist rule is an eternal game of cat and mouse between a state that jealously guards its status as the sole moving force and the permanent guerrilla warfare of private initiative, the black market—the powerful current that runs beneath the nation’s apparently monolithic surface and, to a large degree, keeps it functional. The state, one might say, now proposes to gain access to this current by drilling some artesian wells to allow it to rise to the surface in a more or less controlled way.

I’m amazed, for example, by the amount of street food one can buy, in contrast to the hungry years of the so-called Período Especial that began in 1991. Along the Calle San Rafael, in the city’s historic center, I count at least ten food stands, most of them doing business in Cuban pesos. Yes, prices are quite high; yet the markets are well stocked (by Cuban standards) and there are buyers, even at prices that are prohibitive for much of the population. The private grocers, along with the state stores that sell at “liberated” market prices, have made the arduous task of feeding oneself and one’s family somewhat less difficult. The country imports 80 percent of what it consumes, at a cost of almost $2 billion per year. In 2007, the government began to parcel out fallow land for individual farming, nearly three million hectares of it, almost half of the country’s farmland. Still, as the young Cuban economist Pavel Vidal Alejando noted in an interview in the magazine Espacio Laícal, “the dissolution of the centralized state system’s monopoly on agricultural commercialization” has yet to be achieved. It is this factor of state subsidy—and not underdevelopment or hurricanes—that keeps Cuban campesinos from filling the stores with produce.

Ration cards, it is announced, will soon be eliminated—a lifelong dream for many that finally seems to lie within reach. Not because the economic bonanza of Developed Socialism has allegedly been achieved (as happened in the USSR, where, we were told, there were no libretas, or ration cards) but because the state by now has hardly anything to distribute. The bodega I pass by every morning, which has a working public phone I use to make calls, is still as empty as it would have been during my childhood, when my mother had to work miracles to stretch out the permanently insufficient quota of rationed bread.

4.

Despite Cuba’s beseeching overtures,” my friend the essayist Victor Fowler tells me when I pay him a visit late one dark night, “the Chinese didn’t want to join in the game of ‘keeping’ faraway Cuba, as the Russians had.” The USSR, the sugar daddy that gave billions of dollars to the Cuban Revolution for more than thirty years, passed away in 1991. Its place was taken by Venezuela, which sells Cuba 100,000 barrels of oil per day in exchange for medical services. But this model, too, has begun to spring some leaks because of Hugo Chávez’s blunders and Venezuela’s own precarious situation.

The government has therefore seen itself forced to turn to the last creditor left standing: none other than the Cuban people themselves. The government has stopped deploring those who desert the state economy as speculators and parasites, and baptized them with a new name: cuentapropistas (“own-accounters”). This is the most recent of its last resorts.

The first step was the publication of an unintentionally comical list of 178 authorized activities for cuentapropistas. The list includes such exotic careers as clown and “button upholsterer” but prudently omits other professions such as doctor or computer programmer. Education in those fields is financed by the Revolution, doctors especially being one of the country’s primary sources of income. Cuba maintains so-called “medical missions” not only in Venezuela but also in South Africa, Bolivia, and many other countries.

The list was received with great enthusiasm. According to Granma, 80,000 Cubans had requested cuentapropista licenses by November of last year. The government has declared, in response, that it will import $130 million worth of merchandise to create a wholesale market from which these new entrepreneurs can buy the materials they need. Even more paradoxically, and still in accordance with the “Guidelines,” it will be the state, as well, that sets prices and taxes earnings at rates some fear are so high that they will cripple fledgling businesses. There is an ideological basis for these contradictions: “No one must be deceived about this,” declared Raúl Castro, in the aforementioned speech.

The “Guidelines” establish a path toward the socialist future that suits Cuba’s needs, and not toward the neocolonial and capitalist past toppled by the Revolution. State planning and not the free market will be the distinctive feature of the economy, and the concentration of capital will not be allowed, as the third of the “general guidelines” states.

5.

The other policy all Havana is talking about consists of layoffs. The government is going to eliminate 500,000 jobs by the end of 2011 and up to 1.3 million over the subsequent three years. When I read this news in New York it frightened me, but in Cuba I’m struck by two things. First, among all the people I talk to—friends, former classmates, people I meet in the street—no one is currently working for the state. I even speak to a doctor who resigned from her job in order to owe nothing to the state and be able to emigrate when she could (a punitive five-year delay is imposed on working doctors who express a desire to leave).

Second, I sense no great anguish about the layoffs, perhaps because it doesn’t make much sense to talk about “layoffs” in a situation where salaries are symbolic at best. The meager salary paid by the state, $15 to $20 per month, is almost valueless. In an economy where a cell phone costs $40 a month and there are a million cell phones in use, it’s clear that money is coming from somewhere besides the state. A friend told me he sees the layoffs “as a relief” and also as “an opportunity for many people.” “This is the point where the state will stop meddling and finally allow us to earn a living.” It will be riskier, but it will also mean living in greater freedom.

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