Cuba’s “New Freedoms”
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.
CHOICES TO BE MADE
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.
MORE SIGNIFICANT CHANGES
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.
HERE COME THE BUSES, MORE FOOD NEXT?
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.