Cuba reforms: Important changes, but pace is slow

Cuba released many political prisoners and expanded personal economic rights this year. But everything won't change at once: The socialist country has a bloated state bureaucracy that moves slowly.

Franklin Reyes/AP
People walk in an open-air market where the government allows licensed vendors to sell their goods in Havana, Cuba, Aug. 31.

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

Perhaps the biggest underlying tension among Cuba watchers is on the issue of whether things (i.e. policies) on the island are changing for the better, or whether they remain upsettingly the same as they have for half of a century. A comprehensive view, of course, would acknowledge that both phenomena exist. And a realistic observer would recognize that one cannot expect everything to change at once: countries are complex, and a socialist country in particular has a bloated state bureaucracy that moves slowly.

Cuba faces some of the same challenges it has for years. How does one encourage workers to innovate and increase productivity when there are no material incentives for doing so? How can the country smoothly transition from a centrally-controlled Communist country to whatever it is becoming as it incorporates means for expanding the private sector? How does one effectively manage the country’s use of two currencies and mitigate the polarizing effect this can have in terms of income disparities for individuals with access to only one of those two currencies?

And there are other challenges facing the country which keep it on rather fragile footing. Attracting foreign investment remains a challenge when foreigners cannot be confident that their investments will be completely safe, given past experience in Cuba and other nations, like Venezuela. The Chinese are doing a fair amount of business in Cuba these days, including in oil, and economic independence via a major oil discovery remains a hope for Havana: But thus far, all wells have come up dry or disappointing. And of course, there is the US embargo.

Despite all, Cuba’s economic growth in the first half of 2012 came in at a respectable 2.1 percent: Better growth than was seen in the United States, in fact. Cuba is trading actively with partners like Venezuela, China, Spain, Brazil, and Canada, and even with the United States in select industries that meet regulations imposed around the broader embargo.

As in Myanmar, where reforms are proceeding at a somewhat quicker (or at least more publicly visible) pace, the progress is imperfect. It is piecemeal. And it is not complete. In Myanmar, many political detainees remain imprisoned, and clashes between Burmese military and local insurgent groups continue. Yet Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country at the end of last year to applaud its progress on a number of other fronts – establishment of the National Human Rights Commission, general amnesties of more than 200 political prisoners, institution of new labor laws that allow labor unions and strikes, relaxation of press censorship, and regulations of currency practices – and since then, Washington has relaxed sanctions and steadily reestablished diplomatic relations in a way that has allowed the United States to re-engage and be an active part of the reforms and transitions taking place.

All this regarding a country with little strategic interest for the United States given its geographic location half way around the world. Cuba, too, released many of the individuals identified as political prisoners by the international community. Other reforms have involved expanding the personal economic rights available to Cubans.

Huge issues still exist. Activists are regularly imprisoned for speaking out. Private sector entrepreneurs face a range of bureaucratic and supply challenges. But there is an opening during the current transition to make many more changes that the international community has asked to see but not often actively engaged to assist in moving forward.

We’ve seen it happen with Myanmar: surely there is room for similar processes of re-engagement with Cuba, at least after Nov. 6, as it moves through its own transition period.

– Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior External Affairs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy and Cuba blogger at the Foreign Policy Association. Read her blog, and follow her on Twitter @LockhartFortner.

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