Real change eludes Cuba
BY MATTHEW BRADYAND KIRA RIBAR
Cuban President Raúl Castro has announced economic reforms over the last
several years, but have Cubans felt improvements in their lives as a
result of these reforms or do they expect positive results from them in
the future? Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is no.
Freedom House released a special report last week that details in-depth
interviews with 120 Cubans living in six provinces in Cuba. The report,
Real Change for Cuba? How Citizens View Their Country's Future, reveals
that while there are indications of limited economic change, most Cubans
have neither felt nor believe they will feel noticeable improvements in
their personal situation as a result of Castro's reforms.
Since 2008, Castro's announcements and reforms have been heralded by
some as the beginning of a new Cuba, an economic liberalization that
will modernize Cuban society from its communist roots. Others have
suggested the announcements are hollow promises and the reforms will
only solidify Castro's grip on Cuba's political hierarchy. But what do
Cubans think and what have they experienced since Castro took power from
his ailing brother in 2006?
Freedom House's report shows that Cubans remain generally pessimistic
about reforms and skeptical about their future, in part, because they
have lived through other "reforms" in the last 20 years. Cubans endured
the "Special Period" after the fall of the Soviet Union, when economic
changes stemming from the loss of Soviet subsidies and supplies resulted
in significant hardships for Cubans. They have seen restrictions relaxed
on private enterprises only to watch the government later tighten the
restrictions. Little surprise, then, that Cubans seem to take on an
"I'll believe it when I see it" attitude toward the most recent round of
The report is full of personal stories and opinions on the reforms. A
poet in Havana explained his skepticism, "This country can't take
another Special Period, not that the Special Period ever really ended!"
A handicraft vendor from Santa Clara angrily declared: "They're going to
throw us out of our jobs, and then on top of that they're cheating the
elderly (by eliminating assistance programs). I have to take care of my
in-laws. With what? It can't be like this."
And, a university student in Pinar del Rio pointed out that "we can't
all be cuentapropistas (private business owners), and those who do have
a business will have to earn a lot to be able to pay for the licenses."
The report also covers a sampling of Communist Party affiliates who
believe the reforms will be successful, as well as some Cubans who are
cautiously optimistic the reforms will bring positive change. However,
the overwhelming impression is of a Cuban populace that is anxious about
the future, worried about making ends meet, and has little reason to
believe the reforms will personally benefit them.
These stories provide insights into why Cubans have adopted a
wait-and-see attitude towards Castro's reforms. Cubans feel they have
little control over government policy and do not have the right to
freely express their opinions. "Everything is in the hands of the
government, there's not much to do," said an information technology
manager in Santiago. "Everyone watches you here," stated a casa
particular owner in Villa Clara. "If it's not the government, it's the
neighbors who immediately alert the authorities when someone arrives."
Youth in particular are apathetic toward the future, are not involved in
politics and tend to focus on how to fortify their personal situation.
Meanwhile, the severe restrictions have left some Cubans feeling bitter
about their current plight — alone and isolated without permission to
move around the country or even outside the country.
It is evident that, even with the moderate levels of optimism regarding
the reforms, Cubans are skeptical that they will benefit personally from
the reforms. As a young respondent in Havana put it, "Nothing really
changes in Cuba. The country [is] . . . the same as it's always been
and, the way it looks, the same as it will always be."
Matthew Brady is program director at Freedom House, and Kira Ribar is a