Apparent U-turns have led some to declare Cuba's revolution dead. It has life in it yet, however
Friday 17 September 2010
Everyone who lives in Cuba and those who follow Cuban affairs closely know that the existing economic model has not been working well. It hardly needs Fidel to spell this out. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, which deprived the island of its principal model and benefactor, the Cuban authorities have improvised brilliantly, breaking every rule in the rulebook, both socialist and capitalist. Tourism has replaced sugar as the country's principal earner of foreign currency. Collective farms have been broken up. Hundreds of thousands of people now work on their own account, soon to be joined by half a million others – or possibly more.
The outlines of the new programme are still barely visible, but will become more so in the months to come, as an embryonic private sector begins to re-emerge. In 1968, at the height of the Prague Spring, Fidel shut down all small enterprises, as well as cafes, bars and nightclubs, accusing them of fostering a counter-revolution. Havana and Cuba's other cities soon lost much of their sophisticated charm. The commanding heights of the economy were already in the hands of the state by then, so the attack on tiny businesses seemed motivated more by ideological severity than economic necessity.
Today the wheel has turned full circle and the small-scale private enterprises that characterise a city, and make it worth living in, will return. Yet the changes outlined this week have more to do with the wider plan for the future economic organisation of the country than any desire to make the cities more attractive. The plan has been worked on and endorsed by the country's powerful state trade union federation, and there is no doubt that the new policies will be well received by most people.
This is the first step in the reorganisation of the Cuban economy, and the Cubans are fortunate in having the powerful backing of oil-rich Venezuela. Hugo Chávez will be helpful during this transition period, not least because the Cubans will be moving closer to the mixed economy that he has always favoured. The current arrangements, with Cuban doctors working in Venezuela and being paid for with subsidised oil, work well for both parties.
But what of the larger question of the wider economic framework? The Cubans, government and population, have been well informed about the collapse of the communist system in Russia and eastern Europe, and its replacement by unbridled capitalism of the most vicious and corrupt kind. There is little enthusiasm to start down that road. Nor does anyone want to see the rich Cuban millionaires in Florida returning to reclaim their homeland. (Nor, to be fair, do most of the millionaires.)
So, with private enterprise back on the agenda, the Cubans will soon have to formulate a strategy for relinking their economy with the wider world. Much has already been done. Cuba trades with Latin America with few problems, as it does with Canada, Europe and Asia, and of course with Russia and China. Even US agricultural produce now arrives by regular boat.