Cole Sedgwick on Cuba’s delicate shift towards capitalist enterprise

Fidel's panopticon gaze

As more and more foreign tourists flock to Havana to indulge in Cohibas and Daiquiris, there is an emerging sense that Castro’s long-lived revolution might be drawing to a close. Perhaps the signs have been there for a while. After all, it was the collapse of the Soviet Union twenty years ago that ensured Cuba would have to rely heavily on its emerging tourist industry. Now, however, it seems that, for some at least, the decadent beat of the 1930s may be returning to the Cuban capital.

Having visited Cuba myself two years ago, it was clear that Havana in particular was geared towards entertaining visitors. Tours around cigar factories, a dual currency – one pegged to the dollar for tourists, the other only accessible to Cubans – and the conspicuousness of tour companies, suggested a country moving towards a form of communism-lite, if not quite the early stages of capitalism.

Yet, it is the recent reforms implemented by Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother and successor, which offer the most convincing evidence yet that Cuba may be changing. Whilst still a far cry from the reforms of Deng Xiaoping of the late 1970s, which successfully opened up the Chinese economy and helped it on its way to the summit of global economic power, Raul Castro’s changes do mark a significant shift in economic policy. Hampered by the continuing US trade embargo and the country’s chronic lack of liquidity borne of the inadequacies of its system of credit, the Cuban government has increasingly had to face up to its ailing economy. In order for the Revolution to survive, they argue, the most comprehensive set of reforms since the 1959 revolution must take place.

Last September the government officially declared the need for radical restructuring to save the economy from collapse, and this month has begun a policy of cutting back thousands of state run jobs. Ninety percent of the population are employed by the government, but to alleviate the burden on state coffers, Raul’s plan is expected to cut 500,000 jobs by the end of April. Those laid off will be encouraged to apply for licenses to begin work in the private sphere. In the long run, it is hoped the reforms will lead to one million jobs moving from the state sector towards a form of private enterprise, a shift that would comprise twenty percent of the workforce. Accompanied by the easing of internet restrictions and the release of 60 political prisoners since summer 2010, there is a suggestion that significant steps at reform are beginning to take place.

For now, it remains hard to asses how Cubans themselves feel about the current reforms. A sense of uncertainty seems to be gripping the population, unsure of whether to be excited and optimistic that their country may be emerging from a period of weak economic growth, or frightened that their jobs and with it their livelihoods are on the line.

What appears certain however is that these reforms represent the most significant departure yet from Fidel’s 1959 Marxist vision of a self-sufficient and egalitarian Cuba. Regardless of whether one judges the Cuban experiment as either a noble success or an inept failure, let’s hope that an erasure of history and culture will not accompany Cuba’s move towards private enterprise. Cubans deserve a chance to decide their own fate; let’s not turn their island into another Caribbean resort for ourselves.

Cole Sedgwick