Cuba, Obama, and Change

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Although Republicans and, no doubt, the Castro brothers perceive President Obama’s visit to Cuba on March 20 as American kowtowing, the perception on the Cuban street is entirely different.

To Cubans, the visit is an honor ranking right up there with the Pope’s visit, and one not vouchsafed to the island since President Coolidge’s visit in 1928. El mulato, as he’s informally referred to in the Cuban fashion of conferring nicknames on everyone, and his historic visit, bring the promise of hope and change to the island more concretely than any pronouncement ever made by the Castros.

I know. Three days ago I returned from a 30-day bike journey across the island, from Baracoa in the east to Havana. American flags were everywhere — in cars, taxis, horse- and pedal-drawn taxis, even clothing — even before the visit was announced. Warned by guidebooks and savants to minimize exchanges with uniformed personnel, and never to photograph any, I found the admonition accurate. These were all serious, unfriendly, incorruptible, suspicious, and averse to any sign of curiosity. But once the visit was announced, I decided to test the premises. Passing soldiers, policemen and God-knows-what functionaries, I’d yell, “We’re not enemies anymore!” and I’d add some typical Cuban sassy wordplay non-sequitur as a true native would. I managed to get a few smiles and even some playful responses. Things are changing.

The hustle, bustle, entrepreneurship, and raw energy that permeated every person was a far cry from the typical listless socialist citizen.

Back in March 2012, in a Liberty article entitled “The Metamorphosis,” I outlined the changes to the Cuban economy legislated by the Castro government (see also “Cuba: Change We Can Count On?”, Liberty, December 2010). The changes attempted to drop one-fifth of the workers from government jobs and make them self-employed — this in a country where everyone is employed by the government at pay scales of $1–2 per day. But the fine print indicated internal ideological conflicts. While dozens of job categories were authorized — from transportation to food, to lodging, to construction, to personal grooming (and many more) — permits, taxes, limits on employees and much red tape don’t make the goal easy to achieve.

Nonetheless, the hustle, bustle, entrepreneurship, and raw energy that permeated every person pursuing his hopes and dreams along miles of city streets and rural roads was a far cry from the typical listless socialist citizen. Ironically, even the poorest — those whom socialism is touted to help the most — were selling homemade sweets, cucuruchos, in the Sierra Maestra Mountains without permits! One told me he’d be fined $3,000 if caught. To a poor guajiro unable to pay such a fine, jail would await.

Seemingly everyone is trying to become independent of the government and develop self-employed income. One university economics grad student whose psychologist wife still works for the state now runs a B&B in Las Tunas, where I overnighted between Bayamo and Camagüey. Next year he plans on studying Milton Friedman and Frederick Hayek. I asked whether that was possible; he said definitely, in advanced academia. His study plan had already been approved.

Three blocks from the capitolio in Havana, along the Prado, I spotted a sandwich board advertising real estate. A university economics professor tended the spot. He had no office other than his board, his clipboard, and the built-in bench on the promenade. Though we’d seen many “For Sale” signs on many buildings, including the humblest of abodes, we saw no real estate offices. I excitedly elbowed my wife Tina, a realtor in Arizona, to engage her interest.

Bad move.

A middleman agent of finance — the epitome of freewheeling capitalism — just didn’t fit into her perception of a socialist economy. Either the man was deluded or he was a scammer (an unlikely scenario: the police are ruthless with physical and financial crimes). I insisted on us engaging the man. Immediately she blurted out, “How can you own property in Cuba when there are no property rights and the state can confiscate your property at any time for any reason?”

Seemingly everyone is trying to become independent of the government and develop self-employed income.

The poor man, without a vestige of the ingeniousness of an American used-car-salesman, took on a pained and thoughtful look. He didn’t know where to start, but he understood that Tina had zeroed in on the heart of the matter. Translating his response was an exercise in empathy. He told us of a building across the street from the capitolio whose residents had just been told by the government to move out: the government needed the space. He didn’t know whether compensation, alternative housing, or even a grace period had been granted. He was the first to admit that Cuba has no property rights and no judicial system to enforce them. Nonetheless, what was he to do? New laws, albeit extremely constricted, allowed for the buying and selling of cars and property. No mortgages are available; only cash transactions. Interest is still illegal. But someone was paying him four times the salary he’d made at the university. He had nothing but hope and an optimistic outlook: “This time the people will not let the changes be reversed.”

I reminded him of the roadside billboards that read, “The changes in progress are for MORE SOCIALISM” — a sure sign, he counterintuitively agreed, along with Obama’s visit, that the changes now have a better chance of sticking than any previous promises. Or as one informant put it, “Castro educated us; now we know what he’s up to.”




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Comments

Richard Parker

"Seemingly everyone is trying to become independent of the government and develop self-employed income."

I visited Poland in the last few months of Communism. It was the same there.

Robert H. Miller

In the rush to get this reflection out on the day of Obama's visit to Cuba, I failed to add another poignant anecdote:

One informant in Matanzas, who was particularly knowledgeable and perceptive, had been in the tourist business since the early '90s. He'd survived the first easing of restrictions on B&Bs and restaurants, and the subsequent tightening of restrictions, which included a $300 monthly tax irrespective of how much business was transacted. He'd danced between his B&B and running an illegal taxi service for tourists, dodging strict cops and even surviving a stint in jail.

But now he was more hopeful than ever, to the point that he didn't register our passports, a requirement for all B&B hosts of foreign guests. I asked him whether this would get him into trouble. He smiled and said, "We're friends." But he also added that the authorities require B&B hosts to notify the police when they lodge an American. It suddenly hit me that through that mechanism, the authorities had kept track of our progress across Cuba.

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