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Cuba in Transition: the Nature of Reform

The Cuban government has remarkably announced that it will end foreign travel restrictions for its citizens as of January 14, 2013. This is the most recent move in a trend of reforms that have passed since Raul Castro’s succession as President in 2008, raising the questions: what are the motives behind reform? Moreover, where does Cuba see itself tomorrow?

Cuba has long sponsored a vision of utopian egalitarianism, globally projecting idealized images of Marxism. Yet, since the victory of Fidel’s Revolution in January 1959, some one million Cubans have left the country illegally, equivalent to roughly 11 percent of its population. Just last week, three players of the Cuban national football team defected in Canada ahead of a World Cup qualifier.

Cuba is the only country in Latin America with a decreasing population. This is to a large extent due to this exodus of people.

The majority of Cubans who leave the country do so by using improvised rafts, testing their luck crossing the 90-mile stretch of ocean to Florida. Arguably, this is the Caribbean equivalent to the situation East Germans faced fleeing to the West during the Cold War. The United States grants automatic residency to those Cubans who set foot on dry land.


Contrary to popular belief, the lifting of foreign travel restrictions is unlikely to lead to any significant emigration of Cuban nationals. The government has firm control over the provision of travel documents and it has explicitly stated it wishes to protect Cuba’s “human capital”. So highly educated professionals, such as doctors and engineers, will continue to face hurdles.

Essentially, it is the stagnation of the Cuban economy that is forcing the state into enacting limited reforms. One such method is increasing remittance payments: money flowing into Cuba from nationals living abroad. The size of the inbound Cuban remittance market is not precisely known. According to estimates by the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD) in 2009 it is between $830 million and $985 million. Cuba’s government reports a figure of $1.4 billion.
A greater inflow of remittances – consequent to potentially more Cubans earning hard currency abroad – may provide much needed capital to those Cubans wishing to start small businesses on the island, another recently enacted reform. Thus, the elimination of foreign travel restrictions is merely another policy in line with the aim of revitalizing Cuba’s grossly underproductive economy.



Hasta la Victoria Siempre

Raul Castro set forth a package of 113 ‘guidelines’ that were approved by the Communist Party in April 2011. Curiously, Raul and the gerontocratic leadership of the party shun the words ‘reform’ and ‘transition’, as they believe them to be contaminated by the Soviet Union’s collapse two decades ago. The Cuban economy shrank by 35 percent between 1989 and 1993.

Raul’s reforms may appear promising, but they are solely of a practical nature. The decision that farmers can now lease idle state land is intended to increase agricultural productivity. The decision to let go one million government jobs, approximately 14 percent of the labour force, will relieve pressure from the state budget. And Cuba’s move to free 130 political prisoners and sign the UN covenants on human rights will procure the regime international legitimacy.

Raul warned in a speech in December 2010: “We either rectify things, or we run out of time to carry on skirting the abyss and sink.” The motives for reform are clear – they are concerned with the survival of the Communist Party. Thus, change will not be far-reaching, so as not to destabilize the regime’s firm grip on the country.

Cuba’s tomorrow is unlikely to be very different from its today: a lethargic regime encroaching on the freedoms of its people; a people perpetually disillusioned, and a leadership long lost in the unfeasible.


 –  Elias Kuhn von Burgsdorff

Elias lived in Havana, Cuba, between 2002 and 2007, and all pictures are taken by Elias.

About Elias Kühn von Burgsdorff

Student of History and Economics at McGill University. Elias has a passion for journalism and travel. Although he is German, Elias was born in South Africa and has lived in several countries including Mozambique, Slovakia, Belgium, Cuba, and now Canada.

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