Cuba: Change We Can Count On?

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When Raúl Castro replaced his ailing brother Fidel as president of Cuba in 2008, nobody — except the press and those who prefer sizzle to steak — prepared for a change of direction. Hopes that the more sensitive and pragmatic Raúl might usher in reforms have been little more than, well, hopes. So long as Fidel, “the conscience of the revolution incarnate,” remains incarnate — hovering and pontificating over all things large and small, and exercising a censoriously tempering judgment over events — little will change. But hope springs eternal, and recent events do hint at some adjustments in the course of the Cuban ship of state.

Previous deflections toward greater liberalization, such as legalizing small private businesses — B&Bs and restaurants, mostly — because of economic straits, have been little more than expedient intermissions, always reversed when state coffers start to be replenished. But now, the changes, so far subtle, appear to be systemic. In early September, el máximo líder (still Fidel) announced first — in a reflective assessment of his accomplishments as he nears the end of his life — that he’d mishandled the Cuban When Raúl Castro replaced his ailing brother Fidel as president of Cuba in 2008, nobody — except the press and those who prefer sizzle to steak — prepared for a change of direction. Hopes that the more sensitive and pragmatic Raúl might usher in reforms have been little more than, well, hopes. So long as Fidel, Missile Crisis and rued his advocacy of nuking the United States. For good measure, he also added that he’d been wrong to persecute gays. And then — though he quickly said he’d been misunderstood — he bombshelled that the “Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”

Notwithstanding his unclarified qualification, the Cuban government announced, through the mouth of its official trade union confederation, that more than one million people, or a fifth of the workforce, will be given pink slips from state jobs over the next few years, in an attempt to privatize parts of the economy, and so invigorate it. As The Economist reports, “self-employment is to be [notice the future reference in both announcements] legalized in dozens of areas, from transport to construction. The reforms will also allow many small state-owned businesses to become co-operatives, run by their employees. They will have to pay taxes, though how much has not yet been spelled out.” One should note that in the past, temporary dispensations, reforms have been nullified by extortionate taxes that sometimes exceeded 100% of “profits.”

Not all of the newly unemployed will be cast adrift; some will be repositioned in new government jobs, including tourism and security — in effect, a rearrangement of the chairs on the floundering ship of state. Another tranche of the fired will consist of those who receive remittances from family abroad. But will the shuffle work?

Newly laid-off workers, already entitled to free healthcare, education, housing, transport, and food rations, have little incentive to get a job, since most of the basics are already guaranteed. In effect, they’ll differ little from the still-employed, who receive a $20 per month average wage from the state — a pittance that nonetheless proves useful in the large black market economy because the guaranteed essentials seldom materialize. Finally, the average Cuban is gunshy. How can Cubans trust a feckless state that, like Lucy in the “Peanuts” comic strip, never fails to move the football once Charlie Brown commits to the kick?

The government’s plans still need enacting legislation and a restructuring of bureaucracies. This, considering the breadth of the reforms, might have a few uncrossed t’s and undotted i’s by the planned starting date of 2011. The details of the legislation — not as crucial for the long-suffering citizens (except in respect to avoiding arrest for illegal employment) — must be reasonably bombproof to attract foreign investment, an important goal of the reforms. In spite of authoritarian states’ can-do approach to economic planning, foreign investors will require the reliability, predictability, and transparency of well-written laws.

The reforms are all about money — spending less and generating more. The Great Recession has highlighted the limits of the resort-hotel tourist model that has been in place since the Castros first opened for business. So, to attract more foreign investment and development, the tourism industry will

In the past, temporary reforms have been nullified by extortionate taxes that sometimes exceeded 100% of “profits.”


be expanded in what for revolutionary Cuba will be new directions, including something resembling private property and ease of foreign exchange.

The government plans sixteen 18-hole golf courses anchoring new, gated resort-residential communities, complete with standalone homes, condominiums, and mansions ranging from $150,000 to over a million dollars; hotels, apartments, and convention centers; shopping malls, fitness centers, movie metroplexes, and discotheques, all with their own water and power sources. Targeting the 3 million private yachts in the United States, construction of six giant luxury marinas, modeled on Monaco’s, will begin in 2011.

Apparently, the British-based Esencia Hotels & Resorts has already committed $400 million for the first marina and golf course development, with 730 appurtenant residences. Canadian, Spanish, other British, and perhaps even American consortia (if that embargo bit can be finessed) are expected to pile in soon. The Cuban Ministry of Tourism is already rubbing its hands with glee, projecting 12,000 new homes (as a high target), including 800 mansions, by 2016.

One of the delicate points of the government’s internal debate about crafting the new legislation focuses on property rights. At first, usufruct rights were to be limited to a 50-year lease with renewal rights extendable for another 50 years for leasers and their heirs. Now the debaters have settled on nonrenewable 99-year leases. Rights to sell or mortgage the leases are still under discussion, but the Cuban government says reassuringly that such issues will not be an impediment to investment. With an eye to the end of the U.S. embargo and to facilitate commercial transactions and the day-to-day necessities of residential foreigners, an invitation for U.S. banks to open franchises on the island is hoped to be formalized by December 2010.

Enabling legislation is also pending about the list of requirements for foreign residents contemplating the buying, selling, and use of cars, yachts, appliances, communication technology, and liquor and other luxuries, as well as the length of visas.

How will the new investment climate help the average Cuban? Aside from the ever-present trickle-down effect, effective even through the thickest Chinese wall, the effects will come only indirectly. An as yet unformalized protocol indicates that foreign developers will be required to build modest appurtenant service and residential complexes for ancillaries such as domestic staff and maintenance and repair crews, and also health clinics, daycare centers, and so forth, to facilitate routine necessities. Foreigners will have the right — already decided — to hire local domestics, gardeners, and staff (whom they may also bring from abroad). But none of the new economic rights for foreigners will apply to Cubans.

Aside from emphasizing the already well-established apartheid policy of separating ordinary Cubans from foreigners, the new programs will pour salt on Cubans’ grievances by classifying expatriate Cuban-Americans who choose to reside in the new enclaves as foreigners, with all the new gilded rights.

So, what’s it like living in a 21st-century socialist paradise? At the end of 2009, Eduardo Semtei Alvarado, an ex-director of the Venezuelan Electoral Council (CNE) — the organization in charge of presidential, party, and union elections — and a Chavista who now cohosts a radio talk show in Caracas, visited Cuba, unofficially, to find out what life is like on the island. He returned with a great deal of detailed information. Although I grew up in Cuba, I found his report very interesting. Most of the following description of today’s Cuba is based on this timely account.

Unlike most other foreign visitors who express their opinions on Cuba, Semtei did not isolate himself in a hotel. He stayed in a B&B, where state security surveillance is laxer and visitors can come and go at will. The Cuban and Venezuelan dialects, variants of Caribbean Spanish, are very similar, and Semtei was able to converse freely with many Cubans on any topic except internal politics and Fidel.

Semtei reports that no one says anything, good or bad, about the Cuban caudillo. His timeless presence is taken for granted, with resignation and fear. Cubans trust no one. The CIA estimates that one-half million work for the Ministry of Interior as informers. Among younger Cubans there is total apathy and lack of hope; disenchantment with a regime that dates from their grandparents’ era and promises no future, no fun, no nothing. “Each to his own” is the catchphrase on the streets. It’s not for nothing that Cuba has the lowest birthrate in the Americas, 1.59. No one wants to be tied down in case there’s an opportunity to emigrate. In 2008 the popular destination was Ecuador. Thousands left, paying $3,000 for blackmarket visas.

In his ramblings around the capital, Semtei found no bookstores with any current titles. The few libraries have a scarcely better selection. Practically the only newspapers — little more than propaganda rags — are Gramma and Juventud Rebelde, which carry prominently “The Reflections of Comrade Fidel” (also read at least three times daily on radio and TV). As he says, the promise and revolutionary dream of a country 100% illiteracy-free means nothing when there’s nothing to read and nowhere to buy it if there were. On the other hand, businesses of every sort stock eyepopping quantities of tobacco and alcoholic beverages, especially Havana Club rum and Bucanero and Cristal beer, with 24/7 sales. Harmless drunks abound, nursing bottles of chispa de tren (train spark) or planchado (flattened, as in “when you drink this, you’re flattened”).

Though Cuba has cultivated a reputation for being crimefree, Semtei noticed more barbed wire and block-fenced houses than in Caracas, the undisputed crime capital of the world. He reports lots of petty filching — shoplifting, pocket picking, unauthorized borrowing, confidence rackets — mostly crimes of opportunity that get worse as conditions deteriorate.

Poverty is widespread. Not being tourist zones, neighborhoods such as San Miguel del Padrón and Guanabacoa have little police presence. They are destitute tragedies with rotten, potholed roads; peeling, crumbling buildings; burst sewers, and broken street lights. They are roamed by delinquents, vacant-eyed old folks, mumbling mental deficients, and drunks. Colonial Havana, Habana Vieja, is slowly being restored, with foreign aid. Venezuela’s assistance to Cuba, which includes petroleum, food, machinery, etc., totals nearly $10 million daily (Semtei’s estimate). Electricity and water are not dependable, with over half of the water lost to broken pipes and mains. But billboards with admonitions and wisdom from Marx, Lenin, Che, and Fidel abound.

Semtei reports that provincial towns are even more desolate, especially given the paucity of transport other than the araña (spider), the ubiquitous axle-mounted wagon with car tires pulled by a saggy-backed horse. There is decent public transportation for yumas (tourists). Otherwise, the best bets are bicitaxis (pedicabs) in Havana and hitchhiking in the rest of the island.

Cubans make do in their daily life by a system called resolver (resolve) and, without a hint of irony, por la izquierda (by the left), meaning bribes or unlawful enterprises. Everyone is trying to resolver. In schools, students’ lunches are eaten by staff, and teachers sell grades; at health clinics and hospitals,

Electricity and water are not dependable. But billboards with admonitions and wisdom from Marx, Lenin, Che, and Fidel abound.


doctors “ask” for gifts; on the streets, predatory cops take their cut, as does everyone in the food business. Semtei estimates that half the island’s population does something illegal to procure food. Killing a cow, even your own — which it isn’t, because there is little to no private property — draws a harsher penalty than killing a person.

In mid-2010, it finally became legal for farmers to own their own shovels and work boots. Homes, buildings, cars, and motorcycles are all state-owned. These are bartered interminably — and legally, so long as no convertible currency changes hands — for any number of reasons. The famous Cuban vintage cars are being sold to foreigners in under-theradar, complicated deals that will be consummated when the Castros leave the stage — in effect, virtual commerce.

Cubans love TV, but satellite dishes are verboten, punishable by accelerated fines including jail. The people are especially fond of American series such as “CSI,” game shows, and talent competitions, which are transmitted on government channels, though probably pirated because of the embargo. Pirated CDs of the latest Miami shows are available por la izquierda. Internet service is available at the hotels for $10 an hour, but a typical Google page takes five minutes to download and state security reviews whatever you write. Surprisingly, the service is available to Cubans but only after they fill out a lengthy security form. Cell phone saturation is the lowest in the Americas (including Haiti).

Many tiny, private repair shops for electronics, appliances, and cars operate overtime on the sly. A friend of Semtei’s who lives in Cuba went to one but was turned away and told to return later, more discreetly; there were too many clients, which was suspicious and could be interpreted as incipient capitalism.

The much-touted Cuban doctors, once nicknamed sietemesinos (literally, seven-monthers, or “premies,” premature babies), practice without an internship or specialzation. The best of them are exported to work in other countries for foreign exchange at $1,300 monthly, with $300 going to the MD but $1,000 returning as a commission to the Cuban government.

Cuba has become a destination for sex, with places such as the Discoteca Johnny and El Delirio Habanero permitted and supervised by state security. Jineteras (literally, female jockeys — prostitutes) are many. In one night one of them can take in what five first-class doctors earn as government salary in a month. For the ladies there are also jineteros. On the Malecon — Havana’s emblematic walled strand — and 23rd Street, pingueros (dickers) satisfy gay tourists. Semtei reports the rumor that Fidel once quipped that Cuba has the most cultured whores in the world. Taking their cue from Stalin, who used to pack the NKVD with Siberians, provincials with little sympathy, much envy, and even rougher manners for the capital’s sophisticates, the

In schools, students’ lunches are eaten by staff, and teachers sell grades; at health clinics and hospitals, doctors “ask” for gifts; on the streets, predatory cops take their cut, as does everyone in the food business.


Castros have packed Havana’s police with hicks from the poorest and remotest parts of the island. These cops — nicknamed palestinos (Palestinians), are hated by the Habaneros, who perceive them as carpetbaggers looking only to line their pockets. They are everywhere, especially when rumors of dissent are brewing, at which time they’re reinforced by the Revolutionary Militia. The state also offers a “private” security service, the Servicio Privado de Seguridad (SPS), for those who want to buy extra protection.

Although central Havana, Marianao, El Cerro and all the areas usually visited by tourists are saturated with CCTV cameras gyrating 360°, the Venezuelan technicians whom Semtei talked to reported that these were mostly a Potemkin show, since the system lacked recording, archival, and supporting materials. Traffic, what little there is, punctiliously obeys traffic lights and laws.

Beef is generally available legally at $6 a pound, about half the monthly salary of an engineer. Blue jeans run about $30; tennis shoes about $100. Although prices are reasonable, no one has any money. A retired colonel receives a pension of 750 pesos monthly; a postgraduate, foreign-trained economist about 600 pesos. With the peso at about 20 to the dollar, those salaries translate to about $37 and $30 respectively. The most coveted and fought for job is driving tourist taxis, a position available only with connections and bribes through the tourist hotels. Although the dollar is no longer legal tender, it is the basis for convertible currency — a complicated system that includes convertible and non-convertible pesos, with stores that accept one but not the other.

The food rationing system, in the form of a booklet, entitles each citizen to 1.5 pounds of chicken per month, seven pounds of rice, one-half pound of cooking oil, one-half pound of pasta, six pounds of sugar, one pound of laundry soap, and ten eggs. Occasionally, one-half pound of ham per person per month is made available. There are no canned goods. Vegetables are available in pesos from agros, farmers’ markets, which are few and far between. Mayonnaise and tomato sauce are available only from special stores, for hard currency. Razor blades, cosmetics, mouthwash, and such are virtually impossible to find. There are no general merchandise shops, and Semtei could not locate any bakeries. Plastic grocery bags are unavailable and in great demand. Semtei advises that if you visit Cuba, you should take at least 100 — you’ll make someone’s day.

In reality, Cuba produces nothing for export (with the exception of nickel) and imports 80% of its food. The 1925 sugar harvest weighed in at 5.16 million tons; the 2010 harvest, at about one million. Cuba now imports sugar. It survives on the generosity of Chávez, tourism, and foreign remittances.

Though Semtei remains a man of the Left, he now calls himself a “traditional socialist” instead of a “radical red,” espousing democracy and freedom of expression. His disillusionment with Chávez is guarded.

A few years ago I ran into a recent Cuban refugee at a Phoenix gym. We struck up a conversation and, like all Cuban refugees everywhere, we exchanged our stories. Vladimiro was the son of Cuban diplomats, born in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He spoke Spanish, Czech, and a smattering of English. He’d been drafted for the Angolan War when Castro sent nearly 40,000 troops to aid the Marxist Front secure victory, a remarkable achievement for an island of 10.5 million.

But Vladimiro was a conscientious objector, a category unrecognized in Cuba, so he was thrown in jail for refusing to serve. While serving his time in La Cabaña prison, he resolved to emigrate if he were ever freed. Years later, after his release, he and his buddy Eusebio put a plan into action. Over many months they managed to acquire and patch four giant recycled truck tire inner tubes. With vines, slats, and cordage they stacked and lashed them together, fashioning a frame out of the stiff members and carved rough paddles.

A balsero’s (rafter’s) strategy for crossing the 90-mile-wide Florida Straits is not as hopeless as it may seem. Once well free of the Cuban coast, you’ll find a favorable current trending toward Florida which, when finally caught, will carry your raft to freedom. Present U.S. policy gives asylum to those who make landfall, while those intercepted at sea by U.S. authorities are returned to Cuba. Those intercepted by Cuban authorities have sometimes been shot on the spot.

Vladimiro and Eusebio set adrift late on a moonless night. At dawn, they could still see the Cuban coast. Dispirited, Eusebio decided to swim back to shore. Vladimiro gave him “the courage talk,” but Eusebio had had enough; so Vlad bade him farewell and promised to call as soon as he reached the United States. On the second night, sharks circled the raft. Days later, it beached on Florida sands. As soon as he could get to a phone, Vladimiro rang Eusebio’s family. There was no word of Eusebio, not even later, after many calls. Vladimiro assumes that he was eaten by sharks.

By the time I met Vladimiro, he’d been in the United States nearly a year and had been relocated to Phoenix. He was working as a short-order cook in a resort, but he still lacked his green card. His troubles with the immigration bureaucracy were probably typical, but one exchange stands out. His case worker, an unsympathetic black official, suggested that “perhaps he should go back to where he came from?”

Vladimiro, already sophisticated in dealing with officialdom replied, “Would that be Czechoslovakia, or Cuba?”









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