On the heels of news that Cubans would now be allowed to buy and sell used cars of any kind (they used to only be allowed to do so with the pre-1950’s era almendrones sputtering around the island), today Cuba announced that natural-born Cubans and permanent residents will now have the right to buy and sell their homes, and transfer ownership to others on the island. Not surprisingly, the rules come with some caveats, like only one primary residence and one vacation home allowed.
These are still incredibly meaningful changes, and the fact that these sorts of changes have finally begun rolling out might explain why Freedom House – no fan of the Cuban government due to its human rights record – found optimism in a recent survey it conducted on the island. Whereas a year ago, when I last traveled to the island, I detected mounting impatience (a sort of, “this is never going to change” attitude), Cubans can now see real changes are finally on the way and here to stay. Particularly important is the apparent willingness of the Cuban government to keep revising rules – to allow farmers to work even larger parcels of land than first granted several years ago, to let paladars serve fifty, not just twenty, customers – when they don’t work as well as they should, that should really offer hope.
There’s still so much to do: bureaucrats in the way, as Raul Castro himself has complained, too many imports and not enough exports (though major government belt-tightening has gone a long way to alleviate that problem), highly educated workers with not enough jobs to complement their skills (and thus a brain drain exacerbated by incredibly generous US immigration policies towards Cubans), and more.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a talk cohosted by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the American University School of Public Affairs, and the American University Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, given by several visiting Cuban professors specializing in political science and economics. I came away with several clear lessons that the vast majority of Americans (and apparently whomever is giving President Obama advice on Cuba these days) do not yet understand about a radically changing Cuba.
Rafael Hernandez, editor of the noted Cuban journal Temas and a leading political scientist in Cuba, showed just how political the economic reforms in Cuba really are. He focused on four key areas in which the process to update the economic model is crucially linked to adapting some key elements of Cuba’s longstanding political model: de-centralization, de-statization, de-bureaucratization, and building a new rule of law that supports and legitimizes the private sector in a way not seen in Cuba in decades.
Jorge Mario Sanchez, an economist and prolific researcher at the University of Havana's Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy, addressed why these changes are needed now – I loved his Pac-Man metaphor, a Cuba far from consumption but not producing enough to sustain itself – and reminded us why they have been so slow. These changes, unlike those emergency measures taken in the 1990s, are here to stay, so there’s an abundance of caution. This of course means revising new rules quite a lot and essentially “learning by doing.” But, Sanchez notes, the goal is 35 percent of the labor force shifted to the non-state sector in the next few years – not an insignificant shift.
Carlos Alzugaray, a former senior diplomat now at the University of Havana’s Center for Cuban-U.S. Studies, assured us the reform process is something we might not have recognized (or believed) until right about now: relentless. Himself impatient with the pace of change at times, Alzugaray joked that he didn’t say the process was fast, but that hardly a week goes by when there isn’t another change announced.
So back to the news... Just as Hernandez pointed out the political dynamics in Cuba that must adapt for the economic reforms to succeed, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez offered another political message during the United Nations debate last week on the US embargo of Cuba.
"Today, Cuba is changing and will resolutely change everything that has to be changed within the Revolution and within socialism. More revolutionary and better socialism."
It’s a message that continues to fall on deaf ears here in the United States.