may be considering a more market-driven
By Ray Sánchez |
Havana Bureau. South
Florida Sun-Sentinel, October 8, 2007.
HAVANA - Two dozen theater workers recently
sat around a sun-splashed garden cafeteria
in the Vedado neighborhood. They had been
summoned by bosses to discuss Cuba's economic
Skeptics abounded. "Why ask us what
we think when nothing ever changes?"
grumbled one worker.
A manager opened the three-hour meeting
reading excerpts from a speech Raúl
Castro delivered on July 26, criticizing
the state bureaucracy, low salaries and
poor agricultural production.
Some theater workers were emboldened hearing
Castro had publicly ridiculed the failings
of the system.
"Somebody got up and said, 'I simply
want to eat steak and I can't afford to
on my salary,'" recalled José,
a 42-year-old stagehand who asked that his
full name not be used.
"Others got up and said their $12-a-month
salaries got them through the first three
days of the month," he said. "The
rest of the time they had to steal or do
whatever else was necessary."
The grass-roots discussions, which were
also tried in the late 1980s and mid-90s,
auger a more market-oriented approach to
an economy that is growing in some sectors
but has yet to result in higher income for
workers. It is a policy Raúl Castro
has long embraced and his brother Fidel
long rejected, according to analysts both
here and abroad.
"Consensus doesn't mean everybody
agrees with everything," said Rafael
Hernández, editor of Temas - Issues
in English - a scholarly quarterly published
in Havana about Cuba's political and economic
scene. "It means there is a basic acceptance
of the rules of the political game and objectives
of the system. You cannot enrich that consensus
simply by allowing people to talk. You have
to deliver results."
The debate has generated proposals long
considered taboo: expanding private agriculture
and small enterprise, decentralizing the
economy, extending private ownership to
other sectors, boosting foreign investment
and increasing incentives to workers to
"The fact that now no topics are considered
to be outside the scope of the discussion
reveals a willingness to listen," Hernández
said. "Some people are skeptical. But
the fact that the meetings are happening
and the discussions are lively indicates
that most people think this is worth it."
Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington
Institute, a think tank in suburban Washington,
D.C., said Raúl Castro's interim
government has forced itself to take up
economic reforms in the coming year.
"Cuba is engaged in an economic policy
debate of potentially great consequence,"
Peters wrote in the institute's "Cuba
Policy Report" in late September. "Fidel
Castro started this debate, but the longer
it goes on the more it seems to follow a
path that he would not have planned. ...
"There is consensus that something
must be done - for both political and economic
reasons," Peters wrote.
The grass-roots meetings, which take place
at work sites, union offices and neighborhood
watch groups throughout the island, are
not the first of their kind. Similar discussions
were held in the late 1980s, Hernández
said. The collapse of Cuba's longtime benefactor,
the former Soviet Union, brought them to
an end in 1991.
During the economic crisis that followed
the loss of Soviet subsidies, similar public
discussions began in 1993, before the implementation
of economic reforms that included legalization
of the U.S. dollar. The government retreated
from the liberalized policies and discussions
in 1996 because they strayed from socialist
ideology and undermined political control.
"Cuban politicians know very well
that people expect change and improvement
in their lives," Hernández said.
"They can't ignore these expectations."
At the gathering of theater workers, people
complained about food prices, inadequate
transportation, and the inability of Cubans
to travel freely. Still, many doubt the
meetings will result in significant reforms.
"Honestly, I don't expect major changes,"
said Juan, a 44-year-old set builder, who
did not want to give his full name. At least,
the meetings give the public an escape valve.
We talk. They listen. Nothing changes."
Ray Sánchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2007, South Florida Sun-Sentinel