In the best of times, when there were two ration books, sixty-year-old retiree Juan Alberto was happy. One was for food, which allotted you half a pound of beef every fifteen days, and one was for “manufactured goods,” which allowed you to buy a pair of domestically produced shoes once a year.
During that period, neighborhood stores carried condensed milk and Russian canned fruit, employees could buy oranges at their workplaces and regime supporters could afford to throw cartons of eggs at the “scum” who were trying to leave the country from the port of Mariel. Juan Alberto admits, however, there were more restrictions and censorship and less freedom than there are now.
“It has always been a dictatorship but, in the supposedly happy 1980s, believing in God, being a Jehovah’s Witness or watching pornographic films could get you into trouble. You couldn’t stay in hotels, travel overseas or sell your house. And if you left the country permanently, the state would confiscate it,” says Juan Alberto, who is thinking of emigrating to the United States in a few months through a circuitous Central American route.
Carlos, a sociologist, notes that, when comparisons are made between the two eras of Cuban communism, “something is always missing in each. Before, the ration book meant people were guaranteed a certain amount food and clothing. More products were available in the free or parallel market, you could have milk in your coffee for breakfast and salaries had real purchasing power. But it was illegal to possess hard currency or buy home appliances in hard currency stores. And social control was much more strict. Now, because of social pressures and new technologies, there is a certain amount of personal freedom. But not enough freedom to change the current situation, bring about serious reform or participate in government.”
Official academics will not admit it but the role played by the peaceful opposition and alternative press has been a silent lever, strong enough to prod timid but necessary reforms from the regime.
All the changes carried out under Raul Castro’s presidency (2006-2016) were intended to address the demands of opposition groups from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. These included unrestricted internet access, the use of mobile phones, the elimination of apartheid-like practices in tourism, the ability to buy and sell homes and automobiles, and the relaxation of laws on emigration.
Are there differences between the Cubas of Castro I and Castro II? Of course.
Both rulers are autocrats but Fidel Castro was a strongman with delusions of grandeur. Under the guise of volunteerism or on a whim, he concocted schemes for agriculture, housing and highway construction, coffee and banana farming. And during hurricanes he became a meteorologist.
He ignored rules and regulations and even the constitution itself. He created a parallel government with companies like CUBALSE and CIMEX and managed the nation’s treasury as he saw fit.
Fidel Castro handed himself a blank check and ruled as though he were a landowner and the country were his farm. The anthropological damage he caused the nation is legendary.
Perhaps future studies will demonstrate that the state and its media created polarization within society by attacking people for just thinking differently. Or for believing that the political experiment was nonsense. Or that Marxist ideology and totalitarianism destroyed the social fabric and the economy of the island.
There should also be studies done on the “collateral damage” to Cubans themselves, such as the harm caused by encouraging denunciation, snitching, monitoring of neighbors and creating family divisions over simple political disagreements.
If a future military regime decided to build a more pluralistic and democratic society — one with a market economy, small and medium-sized businesses operating under an appropriate legal framework, independent business cooperatives and citizen involvement in government decisions — the Cuban economy could reach the level of the so-called Asian tigers: South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. But it would take two or three generations to re-instill key human values.
There are fewer restrictions now, private business owners have more options (though under the gaze of authorities), intrusions into people’s private lives have diminished, and the long speeches and tiresome political portraits have largely disappeared. But in the ten years of Raul Castro’s presidency, there has still been no significant improvement in the quality of people’s lives.
The housing shortage, which affects more than one and a half million people and forces three generations to live under the same roof, is worse now than during the rule of his brother Fidel. The proliferation of impoverished neighborhoods is striking. In Havana alone there are more than a hundred slums where residents have no potable water and live crammed into huts with tile roofs and walls made of cardboard or aluminum.
Education and public health have fallen apart. Thousands of cattle die annually from hunger and thirst. The livestock industry is half what it was in 1959. The sugar, agricultural and fishing industries are shrinking or not expanding fast enough. Orange juice as well as snapper and shrimp are luxuries in Cuba.
The prosperous and sustainable socialism that Raul Castro promised is only a slogan. Material conditions today are insufficient to support strong economic growth.
His government’s biggest achievements have been in the international arena. It reestablished diplomatic relations with the United States, brokered a peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels and negotiated a significant reduction of the national debt with the country’s creditors.
He also approved an investment law which, despite limitations such as not allowing local business owners to invest in their own country, is intended to serves as an enticement to international investors. But due to concerns about a judiciary that is not independent, a form of capitalism that is controlled by the Cuban military, a system which does not allow employers to pay their workers directly and the uncertainty about the nation’s future after Raul Castro’s retirement, the law has not generated sufficient investment to jumpstart the economy.
In Cuba life is too much of a burden. As soon as you get up in the morning, there is something you already ack, whether it be water, electricity or coffee for breakfast. You venture outside and mass transit is chaotic. And the food shortage remains a big headache.
Fifty-six years after Fidel Castro seized power, the overall sense is that Cubans are tired of everything. That is why so many are deciding to leave. They see no solution in sight.
By Ivan Garcia, 12 September 2016
Martí Noticias, September 9, 2016