Minor economic reforms by Castro’s brother risk exposing inequality and encouraging the desire for change
From the ample girths and gold jewellery you could tell the Fuentes family was doing well, and from the determined way in which its five members strode into the shop you could tell they were about to do even better.
They had come for a Wanjiu pressure cooker and Daewoo washing machine, counting out the money with a certain panache. Why not? To be fleshy and flashy is to be part of Cuba’s new revolutionary vanguard: Havana bling.
This was Dita, an electronics store in GalerÃas de Paseo, Cuba’s dowdy answer to Harrods, and it was an incongruous scene. While Fidel Castro exhorted revolutionary solidarity from a banner outside the shop, the family members could hardly see the leader’s words over the cardboard boxes they were hauling.
Out on the street they packed their trophies into a 10-year-old Ford – a modern showcase by local vehicle standards – and with a screech of the tyres sped home. En route was the Karl Marx Theatre, but you doubted they would stop to see what was on.
Cuba is changing. In the past five weeks the government has announced and enacted a series of reforms unimaginable under Castro. It is now legal to buy mobile phones, computers and DVD players. Cubans may now rent cars and stay at hotels previously reserved for foreigners. More significantly, farmers can now cultivate idle state land and buy equipment without special permission.
Havana is buzzing with rumours of further announcements. Lifting restrictions on foreign travel, perhaps, or strengthening the near-worthless peso so more people can afford the goods that are priced in a separate currency created for foreigners.
“Finally the government is listening to us. This is stuff we’ve been asking for for years,” said Andrea, a 44-year-old technician. It is fitting that a popular new import is an electronic pedal-bike. “Not a new era, a new cycle,” she added.
Optimism is cautious. So far the changes do not add up to perestroika-style economic reforms, much less a glasnost-style cultural opening. The one-party state is tinkering with its half-century-old system to ease material hardship. The idea is to save communism in the Caribbean, not abandon it.
Havana remains a sea of decrepitude. Traffic remains a time-warp blend of 1950s American cars, three-wheel yellow cabs, Soviet-era Ladas and new Chinese-made buses. Stallholders still offer meagre wares in an illegal type of mouse capitalism. Most people are lean – if less gaunt than before thanks to easing food shortages.
“What the government is doing is a very small first step,” said a western diplomat. “They are doing the easy things and giving people more freedoms. We are still waiting for the big changes that will make a difference economically. And that will be much harder to do.”
The most important change so far is in agriculture, in which mismanagement has shrivelled cash crops such as sugar, tobacco and coffee and forced the lush island to import 80% of its food. Now decision-making has been decentralised and some restrictions lifted to give farmers more incentive to produce.
The other changes have merely legalised what has been common practice. The moneyed Cubans listening to reggaetÃ³n music by the pool bar in El Nacional hotel yesterday were the same ones who were there a month ago. Many had wangled computers, DVD players and mobile phones long before the bans were lifted. Those unable to afford such goods before still cannot afford them.
The announcements have signalled greater tolerance for displays of wealth and, by extension, displays of inequality. “Before if you had cash you would hide it but now people feel freer to show it,” said the diplomat.
It is not news to Cubans that a small minority of the 11-million population is well off thanks to remittances from relatives in the US and shady hard currency dealings. The offspring of Communist party officials are among the so-called “mickies” who flash their designer gear.
Free universal education and healthcare remain solid but sanctioning spending sprees on previously banned consumer goods has given ironic resonance to revolutionary slogans.
“We can construct the most just society in the world,” Castro’s brave words said in another banner, this time overlooking the Carlos Tercero shopping mall. Beneath it passed some families with boxes marked Yamaha, Samsung and Phillips, and many who did not.
JosÃ©, a waiter at a state restaurant who earns Â£9 a month, was off-duty, sipping a soft drink along with his nine-year-old daughter. The neighbouring table’s family was clustered around a newly purchased Â£130 DVD player and sorting through a hawker’s pirated wares. “We’ve got a VHS player but you can’t get films for it anymore,” JosÃ© said. “My daughter doesn’t have cartoons.”
It is no coincidence that JosÃ© was black and the neighbouring family white. Racism is illegal on the island but paler-skinned Cubans dominate government and the economy and are more likely to have relatives in the US.
The authorities appear uncomfortably aware that lifting economic restrictions risks exposing and compounding that inequality, at least in the short term. Speakers at a state-sponsored Intellectuals’ Conference last week welcomed the reforms but hinted that social divisions could deepen. The comments were reported in the Communist party daily newspaper, Granma.
RaÃºl Castro knows reform is essential. Nobody starves but most Cubans struggle to put decent food on the table. Since taking over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2006, a transition confirmed with RaÃºl’s inauguration as president last month, the 76-year-old has repeatedly spoken of the need to improve an economy, 90% of which is controlled by the government.
Only so much ruin can be blamed on the US embargo and when the Castro brothers die, taking with them the revolution’s founding legitimacy, its fate will hinge on delivering better material conditions, said one Havana economist: “They know they have maybe five years to turn things around. It’s fix or perish.”
Sceptics say the effort is doomed. That no matter how much a moribund agriculture blossoms or how fast greater wealth trickles down, Cuba will remain an outpost of unworkable ideology until the day the place implodes.
Others paint a rosier scenario for a government with several advantages: a cowed opposition and submissive population; subsidised Venezuelan oil courtesy of President Hugo ChÃ¡vez; strengthening ties with Asia and Latin America; and the example of China’s and Vietnam’s communists successfully riding economic liberalisation.
RaÃºl can already boast one remarkable feat: he has tamed the big brother who used to rail against the reforms now unfurling. Fidel’s published “reflections”, newspaper articles which are his only form of public communication, have largely avoided commenting on the changes. No one knows whether RaÃºl has persuaded the sickly 81-year-old to go along or simply overruled him.
The bigger unknown is how Cubans will react. Being given a little more economic opportunity could sate or whet the yearning for change, and shore up or undermine the regime. It is Pandora’s Box and opening the lid even a fraction is a gamble.