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Location: Havana, Cuba

is a blog to give a fresh angle on a fascinating and beautiful Caribbean Island country that, despite being relatively small and with only 11 million people, has been a major player in American and world politics for a half century. I also suggest you try

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cuba’s “New Freedoms”

By Circles Robinson

The arrival of some previously unavailable electronic items on Cuba’s store shelves, together with the new access to cell phones and tourist hotels is hot news these days in the foreign press. In a constant barrage of news articles most reporters sadly bemoan the fact that Cubans lack the money to take advantage of their new “freedoms.”

Cubans make around US $20 a month, but consider free health care for all a right. Most can’t afford DVD players or PCs but with free education at all levels their sons or daughters can become doctors, scientists or engineers if they have the vocation.

“Cubans can now book a room in 5-star tourist hotels but who can afford it?” chorus the foreign press in articles with titles such as: “Some Cubans can’t afford new reforms” and “Changes in Cuba spark frustration and hope.”

One article focuses on a man named Ernesto who “makes just over $12 dollars a month” but owns a car and his home. He laments that he would have to save up a year’s salary to stay a night in a fancy hotel or purchase a cell phone and line.

Cuba is recognized internationally for having exemplary social programs for a developing country but across the board low salaries keep most people’s purchases to the basics.


Cuba is not a wealthy, developed nation, and the choices the government (which controls imports) must make are dictated by a strict set of parameters regarding what is a luxury and what is a necessity. Finding a way to meet the basic needs of its 11.2 million inhabitants and have an educated, healthy population are the top priorities. Assisting other underdeveloped nations is a close second.

Those choices will never be very attractive to the mainstream foreign media because corporations and the market aren’t the main actors determining where investment should be made.

The reporter didn’t ask Ernesto if he would prefer a night at a hotel to the low-priced public utilities that he and his family receive year round. If he had been asked, he probably would have said he deserves both. Such an attitude has an explanation.

Cuba was never a consumer society with an abundance of products. However, journalist Orlando Oramas reminds us that with their salaries “in the 1980s Cubans could occasionally check in for a weekend at the posh Havana Libre Hotel or take a tour of the island with their families.”

Times were different back then, as Oramas notes. During the 1960s, 70s and 80s Cuba exchanged its sugar at highly favorable rates for oil, manufactured goods, machinery and industrial raw materials from the Soviet Union and Socialist Bloc.

That trade system collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union, and Cuba’s economy hit rock bottom in the early 1990s. While today it is on the upturn with expanded trade with Venezuela and several other Latin American countries and China, it is clearly still in the recovery stage. President Raul Castro has announced a concerted effort to gradually restore the buying power of devalued salaries as well as providing greater incentives for increased production.

While some professionals, workers and farmers earn bonuses they could use for luxury items, most prefer to spend their money first on additional basic food and hygiene products that the state is unable to provide at the heavily subsidized neighborhood stores. Their second choice would probably be clothing or shoes. Many who receive small amounts of family remittances or tips in the tourist industry do the same.

Nonetheless, it is each person’s choice whether they wish to tighten the belt in order to save up for more expense items. For now, the new opportunities will be most accessible to those families who receive sizeable amounts from relatives abroad, people working for international firms located in Cuba, as well as doctors and a smaller number of other professionals working in government-sponsored missions in other countries.


As the foreign reporters concentrate on Cubans’ new “freedom to consume” they miss the story on more important events gradually taking place in the lives of normal Cubans. There’s no magic wand, but major government investments appear to be paying off.

Less than three years ago the country’s electric generating system had virtually collapsed. Daily blackouts were commonplace, affecting normal family living and wreaking havoc at workplaces, offices and industries.

The blackouts coincided with the near collapse of the country’s public transportation network. The inconvenience was the butt of constant criticism and jokes, endless frustration and discontent, as well as damaging to the economy.

Then the government announced a nationwide energy revolution. In short, the effort meant obtaining savings at homes and workplaces with more efficient lighting and appliances, combined with massive investment in a more decentralized and fuel-efficient generating strategy. Upgrading of the distribution system was another component of the plan.

The effect so far has been a giant success. So much so that in this era of US $100 a barrel oil, other countries of the region have sought Cuba’s help to try and do the same.

For several years my family and I were constantly recharging a pair of battery-powered florescent lamps and buying replacement bulbs. Now, with the blackouts a thing of the past, the lamps are around only in case of hurricane winds, when the power is cut as a safety precaution.


In 2006, Cuba’s leaders began a program of major investments in new buses and trains. At this time they predicted that public transport would gradually improve over the following 3 or 4 years. Many people were skeptical since the problem had existed for nearly two decades and was getting worse.

Today, Cubans are finally seeing major improvements in their public transportation. Much of the fleet of long distance buses between provinces has been renovated and urban transport is improving fast in Havana. Similar improvements are programmed for other cities as well. In the capital, bus trips that used to take 1 1/2 to 3 hours, including the wait, often now take an hour or less. Better yet, instead of being mercilessly squashed many commuters now find their buses are only moderately crowded. Sometimes I even find myself a seat!

The much greater frequency of many of the bus routes is startling. Other parts of the capital yet to benefit will receive the same improved service once their streets are repaired and enough drivers can be trained.

Another area where large-scale change has begun is food security. There is a new, high-priority focus on farm efficiency and production to reduce costly food imports. The plan involves higher prices to private farmers, more land to those who need it and greater access to farm supplies, especially geared to benefit both family farmers and coops.

The goal is a sharp increase in harvests and livestock production in the not-too-distant future, thus increasing the supply of affordable food products and adding needed variety to the population’s diet. Such an accomplishment would go way beyond electronics and hotels in improving the lives of average Cubans. We can only hope that the foreign media will stick around to report it.


Blogger Phibius said...

I read a piece in a similar vein in the Spanish edition of Granma a week or two ago. The author resented the curious attitude of the outside world to Cuba: visitors - like me - spend a lot of time photographing crumbling buildings and vintage cars, rather than snapping pictures of Cubans being healthy, eating dinner, or reading books.

As embarrassing as it may be to Cubans, the economic performance of their country is so poor as to make it - literally - a spectacle. Unlike, for example, many African countries, it has a highly educated workforce, a stable political system with (I presume) low corruption; with all these advantages, per-capita GDP is just a tenth of that achieved by other small island nations (and how much of that relies on remittances from the USA?).

In the case of the mobile phones story, I personally enjoyed the absurdity that huge numbers of Cubans already have mobile phones for their own use, but only because they registered them in the names of foreigners. Funny from the outside, presumably wildly frustrating for locals.

It's good to see Cuba developing, anyhow: here's hoping the economy opens up a bit. It's heartbreaking to see so many lives unnecessarily limited.

11:14 AM  
Blogger Belial said...

At least sometimes, the issue should be the comparative standards of living of the "peoples" of Latin America and the Caribbean, the region to which Cuba belongs.

The bourgeois media ... whether the outlet is reactionary, moderate, or liberal ... often compares the living standard of the Cuban people to that of the US people or to those of the bourgeoisie and middle classes of the region. These comparisons may be rigged against Cuban people because the US people are non-regional and the regional bourgeoisie/middle classes and the Cuban people are different kinds of socio-economic groups.

A collateral issue is the indicators used to make the comparisons of living standards -- either necessaries (food, health care, housing, education) or consumer goods (cars, dishwashers, air conditioners, vibrators, PCs, cell phones, etc.)

If we use necessaries as a basis for living standards comparisons, the Cuban people clearly have the highest standard of living of all the "peoples" of the region. The Cubans have a commanding lead in education and health care and a modest but growing lead in housing and nutrition.

[We can use per capita intake ... not production ... of calories and protein as the indicators for food. Plus, the gap in nutrition between the Cuban peoples and the other peoples of the region is widening because of the improving food situation in Cuba (something that has been recognized by UN agencies) and the grave food situation in the region due to rapidly rising food prices (also recognized by UN agencies).]

Some cynics may point out that having the highest standard of living, based on necessaries, in the Latin America and Caribbean isn't saying much, because the region is rife with shantytowns, pestilence, famine, and illiteracy. Perhaps this is so, but this is more than other regional countries that have taken the capitalist path of development can say for themselves.

If we use consumer goods as indicators for living standards comparisons ... say cars per 1000 persons or air conditioners per 1000 persons or vibrators per 1000 person, etc., then there are quite a few countries in the region that enjoy an overall lead in living standard over Cuba, although, with certain consumer goods [say refrigerators per 1000 persons], many people may be surprised to discover that Cuba is near the top in the region.

In affluent bourgeois societies, there is a insupportable presupposition that living standard comparisons of the people should not be based on food, hospitals, schools, and housing. Rather, the presupposition holds that the comparisons should be based on ownership of cars and vibrators.

12:31 AM  
Blogger Phibius said...

"At least sometimes, the issue should be the comparative standards of living of the "peoples" of Latin America and the Caribbean, the region to which Cuba belongs."

Why? Common language, common culture? Or just location? I'm not sure why Cubans should be thought less capable than any other people.

Although Cubans do much better when it comes to necessities than, for example, Haitians, one might have expected more from forty years of universal education and twenty years of huge subsidies from other countries.

For example, you might expect that Cuba would be able to pay itself for the basic necessities that you describe - but until recently, this was not the case (and even now, much of the housing stock is in need of heavy investment).

Rather than compare Cuba to its neighbours, look at the progress other countries with a similar population and similar levels of wealth were able to achieve during the last forty years. Cuba's "revolutionary" economic progress has been almost nil, and looks particularly appalling when compared to, say, Singapore or Ireland.

What good is an education, if you are not permitted to use it?

* Incidentally, why are you so dismissive of dishwashers, cars, phones? All of the above make my life considerable easier - and I'm not clear why a Cuba working similar hours should not be able to afford them.

2:46 AM  
Blogger papualibre said...

People, Cuba is working and fighting to get their own system works and let them do it. I know New Freedoms as mentioned in this article couldn't compared to the actual freedom defined in the U.S however, Cuba has their definition of freedom and we have to respect that.
History tells that many of socialists countries had collapsed and Cuban people are studying the causes of why they collapsed.
In fact, they are one of the best country considered in some aspects such as healthcare, education and the one that I like, "SPORT" compared to other nations.

2:08 PM  
Blogger caballero de la luna negra said...

"Rather than compare Cuba to its neighbours, look at the progress other countries with a similar population and similar levels of wealth were able to achieve during the last forty years. Cuba's "revolutionary" economic progress has been almost nil, and looks particularly appalling when compared to, say, Singapore or Ireland.

Unfortunatley you can´t compare Cuba´s progres with other Island countriies for instance Ireland because the Irish are a member of the EU and have got accses to reasonable trade and comunications policies since long time ago.

Why shouldent we compare Cuba with it´s neibourgs? The development of a region as a whole its a key factor to understand a country because it is the region what gives a beter comparison with the countrie´s development (it would be like comparing Japan´s progres onn the last 20 years with argentia´s)
The GDP and the standards of living in cuba habe incresased considerably in contrast with other latin american countries.

I´m a mexican and I can say tht is that cuba has advanced much more than we do even though we have a larger terytory resourses population and half of us habe moviles*.

* "Incidentally, why are you so dismissive of dishwashers, cars, phones? All of the above make my life considerable easier - and I'm not clear why a Cuba working similar hours should not be able to afford them.
Well most people in my country work the same time as cunbbas people and dont have them, most of us have a cell phone but a lot of us have watched their families rotting while atemptingo to pay for a surgery that the goverment won´t finance, "What good is an education, if you are not permitted to use it?" well at least they don´t habe to deal with a large number of adults who can´t read and their children are not forced to leave elementary school cuz their parents earnings aren´t enought to keep a household, How many of us you think are able to even aford a night in a tourist class hotel in cancun?.
I´d rather have Cuba´s way than ours.

5:55 AM  

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