Sunday, April 29, 2012

Has Cuba’s regime eased up? Depends who you ask

Posted on Saturday, 04.28.12

Cuban government | Analysis

Has Cuba's regime eased up? Depends who you ask

Raúl Castro's grudging reforms have sparked an intense debate in Cuba
and abroad on the current living conditions and future of the regime.
By Juan O. Tamayo

Is the Cuban government sinking or swimming? Are dissidents gaining or
losing ground? Is the economy headed for better times, or spiraling into

Those are admittedly simplified versions of the many profound questions
about the island's future raised recently by Cuban activists in a string
of Internet columns as well as comments at conferences and other gatherings.

At heart, they reflect a broader and sometimes fierce debate, going on
in Cuba and abroad, sparked by Raúl Castro's grudging efforts to ease
some of the government's asphyxiating controls on the economy and other
sectors — just not politics.

Blogger and government critic Ernesto Hernandez Busto, for example,
argues that Castro's openings, including increased private enterprise,
are pushing some Cubans to focus more on monetary gains than calls for

Some Cubans are "obsessed with the ordinary material goods that the
Cuban state now allows them to pursue," he wrote in the blog Penultimos
Dias. "It is doubtful they will choose to align themselves with the
'radioactives' " — dissident groups.

"The fundamental problem facing Cuban activists and dissidents today is
not just the State Security [police]. It is also this gap — social,
ethical and even generational — that the Castro regime has managed to
widen to its advantage," Hernandez Busto added.

Opposition activists Antonio Rodiles and Alexis Jardines argue the
reverse. Civil society is flowering, they wrote, and the government is
so weak that it has been forced to reach out to the Catholic Church and
some wealthy exiles for support.

"The Cuban regime knows fully that time is not on its side [and] the
country is drowning in an asphyxiating lack of mobility," they wrote in
a column published in the blog Diario de Cuba — Cuban Diary.

"Raúl Castro's precarious idea is to add up communists, Catholics and
docile exiles … while delegitimizing the growing civil society that is
demanding a transition toward democracy," the column added.

An optimistic Roberto Veiga, editor of the church magazine Espacio
Laical — Lay Space — predicted that while it would be difficult,
Castro's openings will lead to a "marvelous country" if Cubans work hard
at it.

"The economic readjustment will be traumatic," Veiga told a conference
this past week. "But if we manage an inclusive political model … we will
achieve, more quickly and with more efficiency, the country that we have
dreamed about for two centuries."

Several other Cubans interviewed for this story said, however, that the
reality on the Caribbean island today is just too complex and blurry for
simple declarations or blunt predictions.

Human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez Santa Cruz said that proof of the
opposition's growing power can be found in the government's growing
levels of repression, including the 1,100 political detentions last
month that marked a 50-year record.

Back 25 years ago, there were maybe 10 dissidents in Cuba, he noted,
"and today we are thousands." They include dissident as well as
independent groups of women, youths, blacks, bloggers, singers,
painters, farmers and all kinds of professionals.

But Sánchez acknowledged that most Cubans feel powerless to affect their
future, and compared the island to a baseball game in which the crowd
cheers for one side or the other, but it's the players on the field that
decide the winner.

Indeed, dissident groups are little-known inside Cuba and are being
undermined by Castro's decision to allow a broad debate on almost
everything from economics to culture, said Esteban Morales, a Havana
economist and Communist Party member.

"Our civil society has grabbed those issues, which in the past might
have been appropriated by the dissidents, and is amply discussing them,"
said Morales, who made a careful distinction between "dissident groups"
and government supporters who "dissent" from some policies.

Dissidents also have failed to connect with Cubans by failing to address
pressing economic problems like the lack of productivity, said
Cuban-born Nelson Valdes, a retired University of New Mexico professor
who opposes U.S. sanctions on the island.

Rodiles told El Nuevo Herald that it's not just dissident groups but all
of the island's civil society that are pushing for change, "because of
the deterioration that is visible in the island."

That's another key point of discussion — whether daily life has improved
since Castro succeeded ailing brother Fidel in 2006 and started
loosening some controls on the economy and society.

Castro has allowed Cubans to own cellphones and check into tourists-only
hotels, legalized the sale and purchase of homes and all used vehicles,
and allowed a strong expansion of small businesses such as restaurants
and nail parlors.

Fallow state-owned lands have been handed over to private farmers to
increase production, and Castro has moved to slash government payrolls
and subsidies for areas such as the monthly food ration card.

Morales acknowledged a crisis in public transportation — a disastrous
shortage of Chinese-made buses that was mentioned by almost everyone
interviewed for this article — but noted that there's more food and
other products available for sale now.

Dissident Havana economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe argued that food prices
rose 20 percent last year, however, while salaries increased by only 1.5
percent. Government spending on health and education fell significantly,
according to official figures.

New taxes imposed on the private businesses are too high, many Cubans
who tried their hand at enterprise gave up and turned in their
government licenses, and private restaurants and barber shops are not
enough to rescue the economy, he argued.

The economic reforms have been far too weak, too few and too slow for a
country that Castro himself admitted in 2010 it "was skirting around the
precipice," Espinosa added.

Another Havana resident said crime is on the rise, and so is domestic
violence and heavy drinking among youths. Corruption among the
government officials who inspect the new small businesses is endemic,
and state pharmacies had no aspirins last week.

"People are calling it a situation that makes them despair," the
resident said, asking that his full name not be used because of fear of
government retaliation. "They say the reforms do not satisfy the needs …
and some are afraid of a step backward."

In sum, Sánchez said, "for the average Cuban, the situation today is
worse than it was one year ago … And my expectations in the short and
medium term are not optimistic at all."

For his part, Espinosa credited Castro with accepting economic reforms
that would seem to be illegal under Cuba's constitution, such as
allowing the small private businesses to hire workers —the "exploitation
of man" in communist dogma.

Yet the economist, who has described Castro's reforms as designed to
produce only a limited private sector — "a Bonsai economy" — insisted
that the changes are far from what's needed to turn around the Cuban

"Yes, there have been changes, and I have no doubt that there will be
more," Espinosa said. "But much more is needed, and much more quickly."

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