As Fidel Castro and his Cuban revolution fade, is Cuba rising?
Seismic changes in the communist economy built by Fidel Castro are enriching some Cubans, scaring others, and sparking imaginations: Will the Caribbean gem shine again?
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So the normally languid streets of Havana are now on edge, as a new notion – unemployment – is being felt by many for the first time.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Cuba Economy: glimpses of a new order
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Paternalistic egalitarianism is a cornerstone of the Cuban revolution. Education and health care are provided and housing is highly subsidized. Cubans are given rations of sugar and rice and other basic foodstuffs listed in their monthly libretas, or coupon books. But state salaries averaging $20 a month and food rations together are barely enough to cover people's caloric necessities. Class divides have grown as Cubans with access to remittances and jobs in dollar-dominated tourism outpace those without access to either.
And so Cubans are forced to "get by" on the thriving black market. Walk down the streets of Havana with any Cuban and you are bound to run into a friend or "associate" who puts some kind of offer on the table. Example: A box of toilet paper rolls – usually taken illegally from the workplace – offered in exchange for the equivalent value of gasoline, often also obtained clandestinely.
Still, black-market trade and barter doesn't directly translate into successful entrepreneurialism, says Ted Henken, a professor at Baruch College at The City University of New York who has studied earlier Cuban ventures in private enterprise. He says the state must give more liberty if it demands more economic independence. Cubans need training, microcredit, and access to wholesale goods. "If they're going to require more responsibility of the Cuban people, they have a lot they have to do in terms of giving people more rights."
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The whole situation mystifies Amaury Restrepo, a 24-year-old welder for a railway repair factory in Havana who has suddenly found himself unemployed. The Monitor interviewed him on a Havana Street in mid-October when he said: "I never thought I'd be the one left unemployed The directors said there would be possibilities to open up our own business, but it is not so easy to open one.... To open a business you need funds, and that is what I don't have right now. I don't know what to do."
But apparently Mr. Restrepo decided there was only one thing to do: The Monitor discovered, in an attempt at a follow-up interview, that he'd left Cuba on a motorboat bound for Florida in early November.
These sorts of doubts and questions might be just the beginning of an entirely new way of thinking here. Under Raúl Castro – who took over the presidency from his brother in 2008 and has made clear that economic adjustments are needed – limited but clearly defined reform has already come.
The new president privatized barbershops and beauty salons, allowed taxis to obtain private licenses, and redistributed government land for farmers. He has not minced words. Cubans, he said this summer, have "to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where one can live without working."
But Cuban observers, especially those in Miami, the heart of the Cuban-American community in the United States, say this is driven by necessity, not new thinking. The economy, struggling for decades, has been battered in the past few years – hit by devastating hurricanes and the global financial crisis, a drop in nickel prices, and the worst sugar harvest this year since 1905. The state payrolls are filled with staff who might show up for work – or not.
So long as Fidel Castro, who still heads the nation's Communist Party, is in the picture, few expect Cuba to forge too far down a radical path. "We have to wait and see – and I don't think this will happen until Fidel Castro is completely out of the picture," says Andy Gomez, senior fellow at the University of Florida Center for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "Fidel Castro remains a powerful symbolic figure."