October 11 , 2007

Cuba may be considering a more market-driven economy

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 woes.

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 boost productivity.

"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 [email protected]

Copyright © 2007, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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