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September 2010, Week 3

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Mon, 20 Sep 2010 21:42:17 -0400
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What Castro really means

The Guardian                                           
                                             
September 17 2010 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/sep/17/cuba-raul-castro-new-economic-measures

Apparent U-turns have led some to declare Cuba's
revolution dead. It has life in it yet, however

Richard Gott

The ever-surprising island of Cuba has come up with
some fresh economic measures this week that pose the
question: is this the end of socialism? For President
Raul Castro to sack half a million state employees, and
then allow his brother Fidel to hint to an American
reporter from the Atlantic that the country's economic
model is not working, suggests that there is certainly
something significant in the pipeline. But this is not
the end of the revolutionary dream, nor is it a simple
rectification of policy, of which there have been many
over the years. It is, more importantly, the start of a
major new programme, long-awaited. How it should be
ideologically defined remains to be seen.

Everyone who lives in Cuba and those who follow Cuban
affairs closely know that the existing economic model
has not been working well. It hardly needs Fidel to
spell this out. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet
Union 20 years ago, which deprived the island of its
principal model and benefactor, the Cuban authorities
have improvised brilliantly, breaking every rule in the
rulebook, both socialist and capitalist. Tourism has
replaced sugar as the country's principal earner of
foreign currency. Collective farms have been broken up.
Hundreds of thousands of people now work on their own
account, soon to be joined by half a million others -
or possibly more.

The outlines of the new programme are still barely
visible, but will become more so in the months to come,
as an embryonic private sector begins to re-emerge. In
1968, at the height of the Prague Spring, Fidel shut
down all small enterprises, as well as cafes, bars and
nightclubs, accusing them of fostering a
counter-revolution. Havana and Cuba's other cities soon
lost much of their sophisticated charm. The commanding
heights of the economy were already in the hands of the
state by then, so the attack on tiny businesses seemed
motivated more by ideological severity than economic
necessity.

Today the wheel has turned full circle and the
small-scale private enterprises that characterise a
city, and make it worth living in, will return. Yet the
changes outlined this week have more to do with the
wider plan for the future economic organisation of the
country than any desire to make the cities more
attractive. The plan has been worked on and endorsed by
the country's powerful state trade union federation,
and there is no doubt that the new policies will be
well received by most people.

The Cubans are by no means thirsting to embrace the
capitalist system, as some commentators have suggested,
but they are certainly ready to take more
responsibility for their own lives. Unlike many other
people in Latin America (or indeed in the US), they are
well educated, well looked after, and healthy. The
state will not just throw the workers in at the deep
end. There will be programmes of training to ease the
move from state employment into the world of private
enterprise.

This is the first step in the reorganisation of the
Cuban economy, and the Cubans are fortunate in having
the powerful backing of oil-rich Venezuela. Hugo Chavez
will be helpful during this transition period, not
least because the Cubans will be moving closer to the
mixed economy that he has always favoured. The current
arrangements, with Cuban doctors working in Venezuela
and being paid for with subsidised oil, work well for
both parties.

But what of the larger question of the wider economic
framework? The Cubans, government and population, have
been well informed about the collapse of the communist
system in Russia and eastern Europe, and its
replacement by unbridled capitalism of the most vicious
and corrupt kind. There is little enthusiasm to start
down that road. Nor does anyone want to see the rich
Cuban millionaires in Florida returning to reclaim
their homeland. (Nor, to be fair, do most of the
millionaires.)

So, with private enterprise back on the agenda, the
Cubans will soon have to formulate a strategy for
relinking their economy with the wider world. Much has
already been done. Cuba trades with Latin America with
few problems, as it does with Canada, Europe and Asia,
and of course with Russia and China. Even US
agricultural produce now arrives by regular boat.

Foreign investment is another matter. Cuba wants a
decent relationship with the US, and an end to the
economic embargo, but it will be a long time before it
welcomes foreign investment without strings attached.
The Cuban revolution was always more nationalist than
socialist, and while elements of socialism can be
surrendered relatively easily, the nationalist
achievements of the past half-century will not be
lightly abandoned. The Cuban model, however modified,
has life in it yet.

_____________________________________________

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