Cuba’s Focus Shifts for 2008
If you are already convinced that the only thing Cuba needs is for Fidel Castro to pass on and then to embrace the United States, there’s not much reason to go on reading this commentary.
However, if you believe an island nation of 11.2 million inhabitants has the right to try and improve a political system that, with all its imperfections, has prioritized human needs and development over consumerism and profits, please continue.
The year 2008 starts on a different note in Cuba. It’s not that the challenge to resist another year of US blockade and hostility has disappeared. To the contrary, the Bush administration and US Congress approved an ever increasing amount of funds and personnel to further tighten the screws.
What’s special is that the focus has turned inward to what the Cuban government and people can do to make their socialist system work better from within. The speech by acting President Raul Castro on December 28, 2007, closing the current legislature, and a written statement to that body by President Fidel Castro the night before, appears to have set the tone for what’s on the horizon.
In writing the parliament, Fidel Castro recognized the difficult tasks before the legislature “in the face of many accumulated and growing needs of our society.” He further noted: “In this difficult and at the same time promising year (…) the Communist Party, government and mass organizations are facing new problems in their relationship with an intelligent, attentive and educated population that detests bureaucratic obstacles and routine explanations.”
Fidel said he had read acting President Raul Castro’s speech in advance. “I raise my hand along with yours in supporting him,” he concluded in his message to the 609 lawmakers. Raul has been Cuba’s acting president since July 31, 2006, while Fidel recovers from surgery.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for January 20, 2008 and a new 31-member Council of State, to be elected from within the new legislature, is expected to elect or reelect the president and vice-president by March.
EXCESSIVE PROHIBITIONS AND LEGAL RESTRICTIONS
Raul spoke to the National Assembly and an attentive nationwide TV audience reporting back on the feedback received over the last several months when thousands of meetings were held at workplaces, communities and neighborhoods throughout the island to discuss the problems facing the nation.
He said the country’s leadership had been aware of most of the problems “at least those that we consider fundamental for the well being of the population and the satisfactory performance of the country’s economy and social programs.”
Raul said that the country’s excellent macro economic figures and promising economic growth rates (7.5 percent in 2007 and averaging over 10 percent over the last three years) “must be reflected as much as possible in Cuban homes where shortages exist on a daily basis.”
He said some measures would be immediate and others on issues like the controversial two-currency system require more study before acting. While he didn’t give any specifics of how and when certain changes would occur, his words led people on the street to expect some action to come in the beginning of 2008.
The acting president also spoke out against the “triumphalist and self-indulgent tendency” that often prevails in declarations from officials and in the media. We are “working to eliminate that damaging tendency,” he insisted.
Raul’s announcement of the pending end of a series of “excessive prohibitions and legal measures that cause more harm than good,” was well received. He noted that “each incorrect prohibition leads to a number of illegalities.”
With salaries being low across the board and not satisfying many basic needs —as recognized by Raul in several speeches—, many professionals, service workers and laborers alike have found themselves forced into small scale illegal business activities to supplement their income.
This contradiction has produced an ethical problem, further complicated when trying to pass on sound values to children and young adults.
Now that this troubling reality has been recognized by the top authorities, expectations run high in many sectors of the nation; some require greater resources to be met, and others policy changes.
One of the first measures on the horizon involves land grants to cooperative and individual farmers —proven to be more efficient than state farms— and a more determined effort to produce more of what the country consumes to reduce food imports, which have soared in cost along with oil.
“The studies are well along and continuing rapidly to create a situation where the land and resources are in the hands of those capable of producing efficiently, and so that these people feel supported, socially recognized and receive the material compensation they deserve,” said Raul, raising hopes for a new more productive era in rural communities, once the pillar of the Cuban revolution.
Excessive bureaucracy is another throwback from the past that still haunts Cuban society and hampers its potential.
The cumbersome paperwork and restrictions involving home repairs or moving, car repairs and sales, traveling, and dealing with inheritances, are frequent subjects of criticism among the population.
A classic Cuban comedy from 1966, “Death of a Bureaucrat” pokes fun at a system that can make apparently simple matters into drawn out nightmares. Forty years later, many of the same obstacles still exist and are often the butt of jokes from comedians and the population alike. Generations of Cubans have grown used to needing an overdose of patience to not become overly frustrated.
After successfully keeping Washington, Miami and the CIA at bay and surviving the worst years following the disappearance of the Soviet Union, Cuba constantly receives international recognition for the country’s free education and health care systems, its development in science, sports and culture, and its altruistic foreign policy.
While trying to maintain those accomplishments, the island’s leaders now look inward to deal with pending deficiencies they believe are better to fight now than later.