Cuba Undertakes Reforms in Midst of Economic Crisis

9-23-09, 10:02 am

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Carlos picks me up with his dated Soviet-made Lada at the Jose Marti International Airport on a hot sweltering day in Havana. It’s been eight months since I’ve seen him, last January to be precise, when I came to the island on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. “How’s it been?” I ask him as we begin the 20 minute drive to central Havana. With a scowl, he replies: “Not so good, nothing seems to get easier.” He goes on to say that foodstuffs are as difficult as ever to come by, necessitating long waits in line for rationed commodities.

I am not surprised, as I had been reading in the international press that Cuba has been compelled to curtail its food imports. Hit by the global economic crisis, spending by tourists dropped off while the price of nickel, Cuba’s main mineral export, fell by more than half. This meant that Cuba has no choice but to cut agricultural imports from its main supplier, the United States. Credit purchases are not an option, as the U.S. legislation in 2000, opening up agricultural sales to Cuba, requires immediate payment in hard currency.

To add to its woes, devastating hurricanes hit Cuba in 2008, decimating some of the country’s sugar plantations, as well as its production of vegetables and staple foods. The only bright light in the midst of this food crisis is the implementation of reforms in the agricultural sector under Raul Castro, who became acting president in July 2006. He officially assumed the presidency from his brother Fidel after a vote by the Cuban National Assembly in February 2008.

I am particularly interested in knowing how the distribution of 690,000 hectares of idle lands to 82,000 rural families, in process when I left Cuba in January, has affected the domestic supply of fresh produce. On my second day, I go to one of the open markets in Havana where I talk to Margarita, who is selling undersized tomatoes. She says they come from her father’s new farm. “We started cultivating tomatoes, as well as other vegetables,” she says. “We even hired workers, which is now allowed. But then, as the crops began to mature, we got very little water from the state-owned irrigation system.”  Fearing the worst, I ask her if the state is discriminating against the new producers. “No” she says, “the wells and the irrigation system simply didn’t have any gas for the pumps.”

Later in the day, I meet with Armando Nova, an agricultural economist at the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy. I had also talked with him in January and he had then been optimistic about the coming year. I ask him what’s gone wrong and he says, “We’re caught between the effects of the global economic crisis and the difficulties of implementing the reforms.” He goes on to say that there has actually been an increase in fresh produce since the beginning of the year, but it is hardly noticeable in the markets because of the increased demand, a result of the drop in international imports.

As to the economic reforms, Nova says: “The top leadership around Raul is committed to a fundamental shake up of the economy, but change is slow because of bureaucratic obstacles.” The very process of distributing idle lands requires 13 steps of paper work submitted to different agencies. And while the government is committed to providing the new farmers with the inputs needed to start up production, many of them are not delivered because they are simply not available due to the economic crisis.

Nova’s view that reforms are inevitable is reinforced in a special report on the economy released by Inter Press Service (IPS), which is affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Relations: “There is an ever broadening consensus about the necessity of a profound transformation of the Cuban economic model. … It is recognized that the future strategy should include non-state forms of property — not only in agriculture, but also in manufacturing and services.” The publication asserts, “Fifty years of socialism in Cuba have to be re-evaluated,” particularly the role of the state and the need to use market mechanisms.

To facilitate this transformation, the government is opening up a 45-day public discussion that includes union centers, schools, universities, community organizations and the base of the Cuban Communist party. According to materials sent out to orientate the discussions, the participants should “not only identify problems, but also suggest solutions…The analysis ought to be objective, sincere, valiant, creative, … carried out in absolute liberty with respect for discrepant opinions.”

According to Orlando Cruz of the Institute of Philosophy, whom I met at a conference in Havana on social movements, “socialism is to be re-founded in Cuba. We have to totally discard the Soviet model that so badly served us.” I ask whether Cuba will now move towards the Chinese model. Like others in Cuba in the party and the government I have asked the same question. He responds somewhat curtly: “We respect the Chinese model, but we have to follow our own process and history. China is a totally different country.” Cruz makes clear that there will be meaningful democratic participation in the new Cuba: “We will not allow the formation of a petit-bourgeoisie to control or distort the process. We want to construct an authentic democratic socialism. It will be deeper and more participatory than that of the social democracies of Europe.”

I first went to Cuba in 1969 and have visited the country every decade since then. There have been many challenging moments in the revolution’s history, and now we are witnessing another one, as the country embarks on an endeavor to free the economy from the shackles of its bureaucracy. The fate of this move depends on the ability of society at the grass roots to exert a greater role in the country’s economic and political institutions. If this effort succeeds, the Cuban revolution will be opening a new path for socialism in the 21st century.

--Roger Burbach is the author of “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice,” and the Director of the Center for the Study of the Americas based in Berkeley, CA. He is working on a new book with Gregory Wilpert, “The Renaissance of Socialism in Latin America.”