Is the familiar Cuba narrative about to change? A new wave of civic activism is drawing on historical precedent initiate a gradual and peaceful transition from Communist rule, according to Antonio G. Rodiles (above), the Havana-based coordinator of Estado de SATS, and Wilfredo Vallin, a lawyer and the director of the Cuban Juridical Association.
Nearly six years after Raúl Castro assumed the reins of power, and some 53 years after totalitarian rule was entrenched, there is a growing consensus – among regime supporters as much as its critics – that the suffocating status quo is unsustainable.
Since he succeeded his brother Fidel, Castro has pushed the ruling Communist Party to adopt a series of economic reforms to ensure what the nomenklatura itself calls “the elimination of unnecessary restrictions and regulations” that impede individual enterprise. The reforms, including loosening restrictions on small-scale retail and self-employment, culminated in the 313 lineamientos (guidelines) for “updating the economic model” agreed at the sixth Communist Party Congress of April, 2011.
The government aims to reduce the size and cost state-controlled economy by expanding self-employment in sectors such as hairdressing and issuing licenses to trade. Many privately-operated restaurants and food stalls have opened, but far fewer than necessary to absorb the 40% of the government workforce expected to enter the private sector by 2015.
But the disappointingly anemic and incremental nature of reforms, introduced with much fanfare and expectation, have dashed hopes that Raúl will be a pragmatic reformer.
The economy remains mired in chronic stagnation, according to a recent report from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America, which notes that while the continent as a whole is recording average GDP growth of 4.3%, Cuba lags at 2.7%.
The old elite is facing an unprecedented series of challenges which it is ill-equipped to address, including the potential loss of vital Venezuelan subsidies should Hugo Chavez lose October’s presidential election; Spanish oil firm Repsol’s failure to find offshore reserves after a 12-year exploration – described as “a devastating and perhaps irrecoverable blow” to the government’s hopes of an economic lifeline; and the emergence of a newly-energized and unified opposition, reaching beyond the ranks of the brave community of dissidents to engage an increasingly vibrant civil society.
On his recent tour of “Market-socialistic” states, Castro likely had a notebook in one hand and a begging bowl in the other.
Castro’s tour was considered a “learning experience” for would-be economic reformists, said one observer, noting that China and Vietnam’s market friendly reforms since the late 1980s generated GDP growth of around 10 percent in 2011, while Cuba’s economy grew at less than 3 percent the same year.
His trips to China, Vietnam and Russia were conspicuously designed to glean inspiration and information about the increasingly popular recipe for neo-authoritarian rule: nurturing sufficient economic growth to secure social stability and political passivity.
“Cuba needs to try to manage what happens if there is a change in government in Caracas tomorrow, either by the death of Chávez or by Chávez losing the election,” according to Cuba energy expert Jorge Piñón.
In 2010, Venezuela “accounted for at least 40% of Cuba’s overall trade in goods, up from 27% the year before….more than the trade levels of the next five countries combined,” the Wall Street Journal reports:
[Chavez] has propped up the ailing island’s economy with generous subsidies. They include roughly 105,000 cut-rate barrels of oil a day—about half of Cuba’s energy needs for petroleum, economists believe—and cash payments for a stream of Cuban doctors, sports trainers and teachers who work in Venezuela. Under the arrangement, Venezuela pays the Cuban government $135,000 a year for each doctor it sends over, 27 times the salary of the average Venezuelan public doctor….. Not only does Venezuela sell the oil to Cuba at what is believed to be submarket prices, it also extends Cuba 25-year loans at 1% interest—well below the rate of inflation.
“Cuba can learn many things from other socialist countries that have been economically successful, like China,” said Yang Jianmin, a deputy director of the Center for Cuban Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
“These experiences can help Cuba in their process of opening-up and generate many opportunities,” he said.
But the 81-year-old Cuban leader left Beijing with little more than promises of a new line of credit and assistance with health care and technology.
Similarly, there was more revival of contact than exchange of contracts in the Cuban leader’s trip to Moscow.
President Vladimir Putin stressed that Cuban-Russian relations “are more pragmatic” than when the Soviet Union provided an economic lifeline for ideological reasons.
“Russian officials spoke of discussing new joint venture opportunities while offering no hint of being willing to extend interest-free loans or direct aid,” Agence France Presse reported.
Cuba wanted Russian assistance to modernize its Soviet-era tanks and submarines, the Kommersant business daily reported. But the Kremlin won’t let the state arms export agency breach US sanctions, which explains why Moscow has ignored Havana’s 2010 request to refurbish its Kalashnikov ammunition plant.
“Still, everything that we amassed in past years is now a part of our shared wealth,” Putin said in consolation.
Vietnam’s 25 year experiment in blending free markets with closed politics provides an “economic model” for Cuba to emulate, according to a Vietnamese diplomat, who described Castro’s visit as “important for Vietnam because it will help to consolidate a traditional political and ideological alliance.”
Castro’s tour was ultimately unproductive in producing a solution to the Cuban regime’s dual challenge: identifying a fall-back option to the lavish subsidies emanating from Caracas and attracting sufficient investment to spark the economic growth required to fund that elusive social pact – economic prosperity in exchange for political passivity – that undergirds neo-authoritarian governance.
The loss of Venezuelan largess would have a catastrophic impact on the island’s economy.
“This could be a disaster,” said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a University of Pittsburgh professor who is writing a book about Cuba’s economy. “If this help stops, industry is paralyzed, transportation is paralyzed—and you’ll see the effects in everything from electricity to sugar mills.”
Yet even if Chavez should win the election and the subsidies are maintained, the government is demonstrably incapable of generating the reforms and sustained growth to meet the public expectation of change generated when Fidel Castro delegated his duties to his younger brother in 2006.
Last January, the first ever Communist Party Conference provided conclusive evidence that the regime has neither the capacity nor the least intention of initiating the reforms required to lift us out of the suffocating situation afflicting the island.
The old elite is conscious that Cuba is not a powerful nation like China, the geopolitical position makes also a huge difference. Nobody can forget that to understand the actual scenario in China it is essential to keep in mind the massacre of Tiananmen Square, action that sent a clear message at that June of 1989: We are going to do whatever is necessary to keep the power. That disdain for the human being is impossible in Cuba. The elite is afraid to lost the control at some point because a massive repression will result in a new massive exodus like in 1966, 1980, 1994 and this scenario will create an instable situation not only inside the island but also in the region.
Faced with the ruling party’s inability to address the emerging crisis, we are forming a new coalition of civil society actors, calling on the government to ratify the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant of Economic Social and Cultural Rights as a potential road map for comprehensive reform. Since Cuba’s then Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque signed the covenant in New York in 2008, the government has given no sign that it intends to move on ratification. It has even refused to publish these critically important texts.
We presented our Citizen Demand for Another Cuba, a manifesto for political change, on June 20 to the National Assembly of People’s Power – Cuba’s parliament – in the hope that the ratification and implementation of these protocols offers the prospect of a peaceful and rational transition — delayed but unavoidable — to a plural and democratic society.
“As Cubans, legitimate children of this land and an essential part of our nation, we feel a deep sorrow at the prolonged crisis that we are experiencing and the demonstrated inability of the current government to make fundamental changes. This obliges us, from civil society, to seek and demand our own solutions,” the statement begins:
The miserable incomes, shortages of food and shelter, the massive emigration due to lack of opportunities, the discrimination against those who think differently, the absence of spaces for public debate, the arbitrary arrests and lack of citizen rights, the corruption and the tenure and inability to remove the ruling elite, are some of the symptoms of the difficult reality facing us.
We want to debate publicly the dual currency, immigration restrictions, rights of workers to a living wage, the right of all Cubans, wherever they live, to promote economic initiatives in their own country, the demographic crisis, free access to the Internet and new technologies. We want to discuss the exercise of democracy…..
We are committed to democratic transformation where everyone can contribute their views and contribute to its realization.
Described by a leading democracy advocate as “a serious, coordinated effort led by street activists, opposition leaders, independent professionals and intellectuals to raise citizen awareness about their political, social, and economic rights,” the initiative is the latest sign of increasingly vibrant debate and political assertiveness within Cuban civil society.
Signatories include artists as Raudel Collazo, Paquito D’Rivera, Amaury Pacheco, Luis Eligio Pérez, Juan Carlos Flores, intellectuals as Rafael Rojas, Antonio José Ponte, Carlos Alberto Montaner, Raúl Rivero, Alexis Jardines, Ernesto Hernández Busto, filólogos as Humberto López Morales, opposition activists as Sara Martha Fonseca, Manuel Cuesta Morua, Guillermo Fariñas, José Daniel Ferrer García, and Ángel Moya, lawyers as Laritza Diversent, Rene Gómez Manzano, economist as Karina Gálvez, Rolando Castañeda, bloggers and journalists such as Yoani Sánchez (right), Regina Coyula, Pablo Díaz Espi, Reinaldo Escobar, Julio Alega Pesant. All this names among others and the diversity of professions and visions, is sending a clear signal that we are facing a new momentum in the path to the democratization of our nation.
Just as an earlier generation of civil activists helped initiate a gradual and peaceful transition from Communist rule in the former Soviet bloc by mobilizing around the Helsinki accords, we believe that the Citizen Demand for Another Cuba can be a catalyst for change.
The initiative is also a fundamental challenge to the staid old media narrative about the island. Given the breadth and diversity of this union, it will no longer be so easy to portray Cuba’s democrats as a small group of brave but marginalized dissidents, too fractious to agree a coherent strategic vision or present a political alternative to Communist rule.
For us it is clear that we must exhaust all existing legal resources and instruments as essential vehicles to initiate political transition. We hope that the internal legal code, for its part, does not ignore our constitutional right to file complaints and petitions with the authorities and to receive pertinent responses within the time limits established by law.
It is important to emphasize that in the field of international Law, for some time now, human beings have been seen as possessing inalienable rights, such as once pertained only to nation states.
We are going to develop a campaign throughout the country to promote our demand but, once again, it will be in the hands of the government to take the steps for a series of transformations urgently needed by society and its citizens. Cuba must join the group of modern and democratic nations.
It is the people who, as the source of sovereignty, should have the last word.
Antonio G. Rodiles is a physicist and the Havana-based coordinator of Estado de SATS, a project designed to create a plural space for participation and debate. Wilfredo Vallin is a lawyer and the director of the Cuban Juridical Association, an independent group of legal advocates.