Fifty years after their bay of pigs victory, Cuba's Castro brothers are
finally loosening their grip on the country's economy. But it may be too
By Christopher Hart, The Telegraph April 24, 2011 2:03 AM
In a choreographed display of communist propaganda, Cuba's aging rulers
celebrated the 50th anniversary of their greatest victory over the U.S.
last week with a showpiece military parade in central Havana.
Army veterans and students waving bright red bandanas led the march
commemorating the defeat of the CIA-backed invasion by Cuban exiles at
the Bay of Pigs in April 1961. Under a strong Caribbean sun,
President Raul Castro, in his trademark olive green fatigues, returned
the salutes of youth groups, workers' associations and soldiers filing
through Revolution Square.
Absent from the podium as the tanks rolled by and MiG fighter jets
roared overhead, however, was his ailing older brother, El Commandante
Fidel Castro, 84, the father of the revolution that was being lauded.
"The young people will continue the struggle of Fidel and Raul for
generations to come," insisted Guillermo Valdez, a student holding a
placard declaring, "Homeland or Death."
But despite the highly scripted show of nostalgia and fervour, it was
actually an exercise in myth and reality for the country's communist cadres.
For all the parade banners boldly declaring the "Victory of Socialism,"
it is the failings of Cuba's experiment in tropical communism that has
dominated the agenda in recent weeks.
Last week, 1,000 delegates sat down for the first party congress in 14
years. Their task -to discuss the final throw of the dice by Raul Castro
to salvage the regime and its ailing economy.
The stakes are high as the 79-year-old president, who stepped into the
post after an intestinal infection almost killed his older brother,
attempts to usher in market reforms to bolster a Soviet-style economy
that is close to collapse.
"The time that we have left is short, and the work that we have to do is
gigantic," Castro announced
recently, as he conceded that changes that would once have been viewed
as a heretical embrace of capitalism were desperately needed.
In a country where 90 per cent of the economy is still state run, even
these reforms are limited, aimed at promoting small business while
central planning and major industries remain in the hands of military
and party chiefs.
But some 170,000 Cubans have already taken out selfemployment licences,
running outfits such as pizza joints and trinket stalls, even though
many feel that Raul's measures are too little too late.
"Cuba is certainly changing, but too little and too slowly," said
Victoria Garcia, 58, who is now licensed to rent out rooms to tourists
in her central Havana apartment.
"The government is handing out small business licences, but we are all
just buying and selling more cheap stuff to each other.
"Bracelets and pizza are great, but you can't create an economy that
way. It's not creating jobs and we are not investing in the future.
"The changes here are only surface deep. It's the same people
controlling the same things when you scratch beneath the surface. The
congress is a sideshow for most Cubans."
Raul Castro has issued guidelines that would cut rations and subsidies
and eliminate more than million state jobs -one fifth of the workforce
-by 2015. But he has already been forced to postpone the layoffs, amid
delaying tactics by midlevel party officials.
Still, the forces of the free market are gradually making their claim on
Havana's crumbling colonial facades. Buildings neglected for decades are
getting belated makeovers, while new business signs bear testimony to a
new class of microentrepreneurs -barbers, manicurists, plumbers, taxi
drivers, car mechanics and pizza-makers.
Cubans are also desperately hoping, but dare not expect, that the
congress may also consider scrapping the loathed bans on the private
sale of property and cars as a gesture of appeasement.
What is not on the agenda, however, is any loosening in the strict
system of one-party rule. If the insular Castros and their cronies see
any role model, it is China and Vietnam, where the communist parties
have allowed economic reforms while maintaining their tight grip on power.
Their nightmare scenario is that which befell the old Soviet bloc, where
market forces ousted Marx almost overnight.
In a country whose people often boast that they have three national
pastimes -baseball, sex and gossip -the rumour mill about who might
replace the Castro duo has been in full swing.
Several contenders to succeed them have fallen by the wayside in recent
years, accused of corruption or indeed simply over-ambition, so firm
predictions are in short supply. Meanwhile, as delegates debate the
reforms, Cubans recall a long popular, but bitter, joke.
"What are the triumphs of the Revolution?" it begins, to which the
requisite answer is: "Education, health care and sports."
"And what are the failures of the Revolution?" The answer runs:
"Breakfast, lunch and dinner."
Indeed, for a Caribbean island that is so lush and fertile, some 80 per
cent of food is now imported and last year's sugar harvest was the worst
in more than a century.
Inefficiency, incompetence, mismanagement and corruption have crippled
the economy and, after the loss of its Soviet benefactor in 1990, the
country is now effectively bankrolled by Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's
firebrand socialist president and a disciple of Fidel.
The oil-rich South Americans supply the country with 90 per cent of its
fuel on hugely-discounted "noncommercial terms," ostensibly in return
for well-trained Cuban doctors "exported" to provide health care in the
slums of Caracas.
But for the Cuban elite and foreigners with hard currency in their
pocket, it is finally possible to eat extremely well thanks to Raul's
reforms. Private restaurants can now employ staff (previously all
workers were supposed to be family members), seat as many as they can
cater (the limit had been set before at 12) and buy food privately
rather than through state concerns.
On just one night last week, off the courtyard at La Fontana restaurant,
European investors hoping to develop the country's first luxury golf
resort dined on fresh octopus and squid as a popular jazz crooner sang
As they lamented the frustrations of dealing with communist bureaucrats,
they ran up bills of $50 a head for seafood and mojitos -a fortune in a
country where the average monthly wage for doctors is $20.
The warped world of Cuban economics throws up Alice in Wonderland
distortions, with artists and musicians becoming wealthy, while doctors
and sportsmen struggle to survive.
Cuban art and music is fashionable internationally, and the artists are
paid in hard currency for their talents. They are granted licences to
attend arts fairs in Miami and or give concerts in New York, as long as
they do not hold forth on taboo political subjects.
After decades of such ruinous economics, the changes that the congress
will endorse this week are the first of many hurdles.
It remains to be seen how many Cubans have the capitalist instinct to
set up their own businesses, especially after half a century of moribund
state socialism that has bred an expectation of a job for life, with
rations to make up for paltry pay.