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The Forever Fidel Obsession
Posted on Sep 19, 2010
By Saul Landau
The heroic language of the revolution no longer applied. The play, to use a metaphor, was over. The revolution had achieved success in the world and in health and education at home, but, as the Cuban joke goes, there are three minor problems: breakfast, lunch and dinner.
In the late 1990s, with the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela as a Cuban ally, money again began to flow into the island’s economy and material life improved. But it’s a far cry from the cradle-to-grave security days of the 1970s.
In 2010, Cuba still faces an intimidating U.S. embargo, or blockade as they call it because it reaches beyond bilateral lengths and punishes countries and businesses that do business with Cuba.
With Cuba no longer receiving Soviet aid, the U.S. embargo interferes not only with the needs of daily life—some products are hard or impossible to get—but demoralizes the population. “No hay” (there isn’t any) has become the daily cliché. U.S. recalcitrance has made it more difficult for Cubans to write the script for the next period: how does the revolution convert from a highly centralized and authoritarian model into a functional society where the healthy and educated population can take initiative, without falling into capitalism, which Fidel and Raul Castro hate. Incidentally, Cuban newspapers don’t hesitate to report facts about U.S. hunger, unemployment, foreclosures (300,000 in July), homelessness and the massive and unmet needs of the American infrastructure over the past two years.
The Cuban economy suffers, as Raul related in his August 2009 speech, from serious problems: 1 million superfluous workers on the state payroll while there exists an acute shortage of labor in agriculture and construction. In recent weeks, 500,000 workers received notice of their impending layoff and were told to start looking for private sector jobs, and to form private cooperatives.
“Our state cannot and should not continue maintaining companies, productive entities, services and budgeted sectors with bloated payrolls [and] losses that hurt the economy,” said the official Cuban labor federation statement that announced the layoffs. “We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world in which people can live without working.”
The sight of idle Cubans on the street in the middle of the workday, drinking beer, playing dominoes, listening to music on boomboxes and basking in the sunshine had become an omnipresent irritant to working Cubans. From an apartment balcony in Playa, a Havana neighborhood, earlier this year, a 55-year-old working woman sneered at the young men on the corner. “Look at those bums, living off the state and not working. Where do they get the money to buy the beer?”
I thought about the “welfare cheat” clichés heard at times in the U.S. What became clear to me in my recent visits to Cuba, which I make at least once a year, was that the economy had become dysfunctional. Centralized authority—the political companion of the state-controlled economy—had also become a cruel joke.
Over the years I asked people I knew why they didn’t organize activities for the kids playing amid rocks and rubble, and why neighbors didn’t clear the streets. I got the same answer I received from people who would not allow me to film: “It isn’t authorized.”
Nor is the black market authorized, I thought. But it functions very well. Under the state-controlled system, thieves stole material, exacerbating the already difficult shortages, and sold the stolen goods back to the people for higher prices. Farmers could make more selling privately than through state-controlled prices, so, duh, that’s what they did.
Raul Castro’s initiative involves not only laying off unproductive workers from state payroll and pushing them toward the private sector—especially agriculture, where the labor shortage is acute—but decentralizing as well
Anyone who thinks Cuba is going capitalist, however, should check more carefully with the facts and the half-century dedication of its leaders to socialism. The small private sector that will gradually reopen, under President Raul’s announced reforms, existed until 1968 when the “revolutionary offensive” shut down the small stores, street peddlers, service providers and artisans.
The changes, compelled by economic reality, should not blind observers to the fact the generation that made the revolution had pledged to carry out the goals that their revolutionary ancestors had in the 1860s, 1890s and 1930s. Under Fidel, Cubans’ deep sense of their role in the island’s history helped them to have the courage to commit the unpardonable sin: disobedience to the United States.
Cuba is still paying the price. The embargo is 50 years old. Hey! Give it time!
Saul Landau is finishing a film with Jack Willis, “Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up,” about 50 years of U.S.-Cuba relations and five Cuban spies in U.S. prisons. He is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.
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