New optimism in Cuba about economic reforms, Freedom House study reveals

The Freedom House report on Cuba released today finds that Cubans see real economic change there, and more Cubans now would rather work for themselves than hold once-prized state jobs.

A worker pulls a cart with sacks of cement in Havana, Cuba, last month. Cuba's plan to move hundreds of thousands of workers off state payrolls will create new opportunities for Cubans, but also uncertainties as President Raul Castro tries to modernize Cuban communism by chipping away at decades of paternalism.

When Raul Castro announced radical changes to the economic structure of communist Cuba, the country was in a semi-daze, as we detailed in this cover story last year.

Many Cubans were excited about the prospects of economic change, particularly opening access to self-employment. But, as state jobs were slashed, many were also worried about going it alone after a lifetime of stable, if paltry, government salaries and subsidies.

But a new Freedom House survey released today shows a radical change in perceptions. Forty-one percent of Cubans say the country is making progress, compared to only 15 percent who felt optimistic about the country’s future when Freedom House last conducted field research in December 2010. In fact, today more Cubans say they would prefer to work for themselves than for the government, the survey shows.

Less than a year ago, Cubans were “very skeptical about change. They doubted real change would happen,” says Daniel Calingaert, deputy director of programs at Freedom House and co-author of the study. This survey was carried out in June, after reforms were implemented formally at the Sixth Community Party Congress in April. And now, Mr. Calingaert says, Cubans see “change is real.”

This economic opening is the “most significant positive change to have taken place in Cuba since communism was introduced half a century ago,” the new survey concludes.

At first glance, Cuban optimism could be a good sign for the Castro government. But it could also pose additional challenges. Cubans who have tasted economic freedom say they want more, and a bit of stability has also allowed them the luxury to think beyond the day-to-day economics of feeding a family. “It’s opening people to new possibilities,” says Calingaert. “There is more interest in individual freedoms.”

Indeed, one of the more surprising findings is that, when asked what reforms they most wanted, Cubans said increased freedom of expression and the freedom to travel (28 percent). This is a radical change from the most recent study, when economic reform topped the wish list of respondents.

The Cuban government has a long way to go on the freedom front. Most Cubans continue to get their news from the government. The poll showed that only 40 percent of Cubans surveyed knew what happened to Egypt’s leaders, while only 36 percent knew how the revolution in Tunisia ignited.

Here are some of the survey’s specific major findings:

  • 79 percent say they have noted visible change in the past six months in Cuba, including more self-employed on the streets.
  • 63 percent of respondents favor the reforms introduced under Raul Castro. The report quotes an ice-cream vendor: “Imagine, I can make more money selling ice cream than I ever did as an accountant for the government.”
  • 49 percent say that it is better to work for themselves, compared to 44 percent who say a government job is better.

That is not to say that Cubans aren’t wary of changes ahead of them. For example, the field research culled commentary from Cubans voicing concern about unsteady incomes, having enough funds to start their own businesses – especially those without family in the US to help – and growing resentment among less successful entrepreneurs.

“The changes are causing a sense of insecurity and resentment among some Cubans, as might be expected in a country where citizens were almost entirely dependent on government for their material needs and had no experience of market competition,” the report says. “Such insecurity and resentment accompanied the shift from communism to market economies in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. While the insecurity and resentment presents a challenge for reform in Cuba, it is also a reflection of how profound are the changes that are currently underway.”

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