Rumba of Revolt Felt in Castro's Cuba
In allowing open markets, Communists worry about dissent
HAVANA — WITH Cuba's Communists fiercely debating how far to open the economy without inciting political change, the talk at Havana's new crafts markets is not apt to calm their concerns.
"They say they are building 'market socialism,' but I was around before the  revolution, so I am not fooled - what I see is capitalism," says an aeronautics engineer, who recently began selling his homemade wares on weekends to augment his government salary of about $9 a month.
The fledgling markets, which sell everything from black-coral jewelry to home-raised birds, were allowed to open over the past few months to help an economy left in the lurch by an end to Soviet aid.
Nearby, a teacher selling bamboo wind chimes adds her views. "I'm not here to be political," she says, "but I can't help thinking economic reforms like these [markets] will lead to political changes, too."
Such views of Cuba's budding entrepreneurs provide unsettling commentary on a dictatorship determined to avoid bucking a global trend where shifts to market economies have helped usher in democratization.
After initial steps taken over the last two years to open up the state-run economy, officials have concluded that Cuba needs much more reform to revive an economy that has shrunk by half in the last five years.
Since 1993, the country has legalized some self-employment, allowed farmers to sell some of their produce for personal profit, legalized the possession of foreign currency, and eased conditions for foreign investment. United States dollars have become a second currency here.
President Fidel Castro Ruz brags that foreign investment under Cuba's opening has topped $1.5 billion, while government economists claim that last year the economy actually grew - by 0.7 percent - for the first time since 1990. The success of the reforms has led to expectations of much more.
But at the same time, the regime hesitates out of fear that such deep economic reforms could lead to a population no longer dependent on the state for its well-being - and ultimately to a loss of political control.
Plans for a truly revolutionary reduction in the number of state industrial and services employees have trickled out over recent weeks, for example. But proposals to offset the cuts, partly by allowing more legal private employment, have been delayed by concerns over what a larger private work force would mean for Communist Cuba.
"We are not going to make the mistake of building capitalism - at least that is not our intention," said National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon in a recent interview.
He says the the Cuban government is being very careful about the next series of economic reforms to avoid "chaotic change" - a phrase often used by Cuban officials to depict the former socialist bloc's embrace of capitalism and democracy.
Sources with contacts inside the government say that while virtually everyone agrees further economic reforms are necessary, only about one-fifth of Communist Party members favor a "social-democratic direction" that would twin economic and political change. But their views, so far, go unheeded.
"The very conservative 80 percent want to make sure any new economic initiatives do not lead to political reforms," says Vladimirio Roca, a prominent Cuban dissident. "What they can't decide is how to make that work."
New laws making the rules of foreign investment more "transparent" and less bureaucratic are expected this summer. But the stickiest debate is over the massive state job reductions and proposals to expand legal private employment.
Action is anticipated soon to expand the legal private employment categories first approved in 1993. The Cuban domestic news agency AIN on Friday quoted government economists in support of broadening the possibilities for private employment. The economists suggested that expansion of professionals' private work options would be among the changes.
Officials say the layoffs - needed to boost Cuban industry's efficiency and productivity, and to make foreign investment more attractive - could reach 800,000, or one-fifth of a work force of 4 million.
All of which sounds similar to free-market reforms and massive privatizations undertaken by many Latin American countries over the past decade. But Cuban officials insist Cuba will handle the job cuts differently.
"We aren't going to be doing this in the manner of some South American countries where the cuts are simply announced and the workers are out," says Mr. Alarcon.
One idea is to cut state support for companies in favor of subsidies to individuals.
The practice would make companies more self-sufficient while guaranteeing that individuals would not be "marginalized" and income gaps not expand as they have in other developing countries.
The reforms mean two important revolutions for Cuba, says Julio Carranza, deputy director of Havana's Center for Study of the Americas, an official think tank. It will become a less egalitarian society, he says, and an expansion of the self-employed and possibly even small private companies will give rise to a segment of the population less dependent on the state.
"We are going to have a much more complex political situation that will mean a new challenge for the state," he says. Still, Mr. Carranza does not think the reforms will force significant political changes in Cuba - nor does he think that is what the population wants.
Not everyone agrees. "The control of the economy is about political control and preserving power," says Marta Beatriz Roque, vice president of Havana's illegal National Association of Independent Economists of Cuba.
"But with the opening of self-employment, you create a new social group and you plant the seed of a market economy that will germinate into the changes that accompany a market economy," she says.
Already 250,000 Cubans are self-employed or "economically attached to them," Ms. Roque estimates. Whether they are taxi drivers, artisans, private farmers, in-home restaurateurs, appliance repairmen, or sidewalk juice vendors - and whether they are legal or illegal - they will begin to think differently when they sever their ties to the state, she says.
Nor does Roque's organization think Cuba can achieve strong economic growth with partial economic reforms that preserve a major role for the state.
"Look at Sweden, or Spain, or a dozen other examples not even mentioning the old socialist camp," says Pedro Lopez Rodriguez, the group's president. "Anywhere the state has kept a dominant role in the economy, it has led to failure."
Cuba's leadership is out to prove that viewpoint wrong. The final arbiter will be the Cuban people as they decide how far to go in the new economic landscape.