March 7, 2011

UN-RED DAWN:

A new dawn for Cuba as capitalism eclipses communism: As state control rolls back, 500,000 are about to lose their jobs. In the first part of a new series, (David Usborne, 5 March 2011, Independent)

Cuba is changing. The roof-garden fete, with its decadent pulse, was not something you see in Havana on your average Saturday night. Some may have thought of it as an aberrant flashback to the pre-revolution days when frolicsome behaviour was the norm. But to others it seemed like a back-to-the-future experience. Was this a glimpse of this grand but crumbling city 10 or 20 years from now, raring once again for fun? A reporter meanwhile tries to straighten out those Castro sightings. The surprise: no sons but two grand-daughters had indeed shown up.

Grandfather Raul, who turns 80 this year four years after taking over as President from his ailing brother and founder of the revolution, Fidel, will not have given the party a second's thought. That Cuba is tiptoeing back into the sunlight is of his own personal doing, after all. It was last September that a stunned nation as told that the centrally planned economy was dying and needed radical surgery. By the end of this April, the government decreed, 500,000 Cubans would have been fired from state jobs. In the longer term, the Raul-sanctioned plan would eliminate about 1 million jobs, or roughly 20 per cent of the workforce.

It is an audacious blueprint that will kill the socialist model erected by Fidel and his co-revolutionary Che Guevara 53 years ago or save it from collapse. Its success or failure will depend largely on whether Cuba, with its epic inefficiencies and laid-back rhythms, can rediscover long-suppressed capitalist instincts. Today, the state employs almost 90 per cent of all workers. As many of those are now laid off they will be encouraged to apply for licenses to try their hand at private enterprise. Fidel did something similar 15 years ago, but on a far tinier scale – Havana saw the opening of a handful of family-run restaurants and hostelries for tourists – and he later backed away. This promises to be much bigger.

What it means is that Cuba is in a state of high agitation. Interviews over several days with Cubans of all backgrounds suggested a people uncertain whether to be deeply afraid of what is coming or grateful that after decades of stagnation, their leaders finally are ready for reform. And there have been other signs of movement from the top. In February, the regime with little fanfare lifted the internet firewall that for years had blocked much of what Cubans could see on the web (though only a fraction of the population has access to it). And the months since last July have seen 60 political prisoners released, all originally rounded up in the so-called 'Black Spring' of 2003. Only seven of those arrested in that crackdown now remain behind bars.

Miguel Barnet, the President of the Writers' and Artist's Union, an amiable man about Havana who has a direct line of communication with the Castros (and is therefore not free to speak entirely candidly), accepted that Cuba is in a tricky place but was certain that Raul knows what he's doing. "I am very optimistic for Cuba," he tells me. "What would be tricky is if there was no transition going on. We need to do this."

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 7, 2011 7:33 AM
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