Has nothing changed in Cuba?

In a New York Times op-ed, a Cuban blogger writes that nothing has changed on the communist island, but guest blogger Melissa Fortner disagrees. Individual freedoms are expanding, she writes.

A version of this post ran on the author's blog, The views expressed are the author's own.

The award-winning Cuban blogger and writer Yoani Sanchez published an op-ed [April 21] in The New York Times called “The Dream of Leaving Cuba,” in which she describes the inability of many Cubans to gain the necessary permission to travel abroad. She is one of those Cubans. In fact, she has been denied the “white card” (carta blanca) 19 times since 2008.

Sanchez relates her most recent denial last year, and includes in the narrative a concurrent thread, as she received news of the violent beating and resulting death of a fellow dissident, Juan Wilfredo Soto, in the very same afternoon in May 2011. She ends her piece with the words: “I could only conclude that in Cuba, nothing has changed. We remain in the grip of the same limitations, caught between the high walls of ideological sectarianism and the tight shackles of travel restrictions.”

I was rather surprised to see her piece end there. Nothing has changed? That certainly is not the argument I and others have been making about what has been going on in Cuba recently. And part of the hope in making the counter-argument (everything in Cuba is changing!) is that change in Cuba will spur an update to the US position toward Cuba: the Obama administration has countless times indicated that it is looking for more demonstrable reforms in Cuba if US policy toward Cuba is to adjust. The embargo, which Sanchez, too, vocally opposes, has little chance of coming down if the Obama administration cannot point to something Cuba has done to deserve it: the seemingly straight-forward argument that the embargo has so clearly failed to achieve its objectives in its half-century of life — or that the embargo harms the Cuban people more than it harms the regime, or even that the embargo enables the Castro regime to continue to blame weaknesses in the Cuban system on repression of the island by the United States — does not appear to have received enough traction in the administration. They have asked for more proof of real, measurable changes occurring on the island.

There is, of course, a great difference between the kind of economic reforms we’ve seen and the political reform hoped for by Washington. Calls for democracy and free elections are not welcomed or tolerated. A one-party political system, where the Communist Party is the only legal option, remains in place. In fact, Raúl [Castro] has made it clear that the economic reforms are meant to preserve the political system, and to make socialism “sustainable and irreversible.” And as Sanchez points out, many Cubans are still confined to the island without the right to travel abroad, and others endure harassment and worse for dissenting views.

But individual freedoms are expanding. A private sector is emerging as more freedoms are allowed to non-state economic actors. Cubans can now technically buy and sell homes and cars, and use hotels previously reserved for foreign tourists, although they are limited in these endeavors by a meager income. Taxis, restaurants, hair salons, and other small business have greater autonomy to determine their own prices, manage their revenues, and expand their businesses to fulfill demand. Dissident prisoners (130 or so) have been released from the jails that held them for years.

The difference between economic reforms and political reforms is important, and there are many Cubans that still have not felt the effects of any of the economic reforms yet enacted. But there is no question that under Raúl, the rules have changed more drastically than in entire decades prior. And we would do better to encourage these reforms, rather than ignore them.

– Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior Programs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy and Cuba blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. You can read her blog here:

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