Beyond the classic 1950s cars, the sandy, crystal-blue coastlines and the vivacity of hot Havana streets, remarkable reforms to Cuba’s longstanding economic and political system have begun to shape the island in a manner unseen for decades.
Since Fidel’s incapacitation at the hands of illness, Cuba’s slow transition from a statist development under the Soviet-style command economy has begun to shift under the leadership of his brother, Raul. Recently, Cubans have a seen a host of market/agrarian reforms being undertaken, as well as the privatization of some basic necessities such as kitchen fixtures and other household appliances.
For the first time since the collapse of Fulgencio Batitsta’s U.S-backed dictatorship, small-scale private businesses have started contributing tax to state revenues, enabling the communist regime to reduce its monstrous public sector, in the wake of mounting debt and an increasingly interconnected and entrepreneurial population.
Individual innovation is more pronounced than ever within the historically nationalized agricultural sectors of the state. This is perhaps the result of recent developments involving former state farmworkers finally gaining the opportunity to lease state-owned lands for private crops without restrictions on the particular type of harvests allowed.
Without guaranteed employment from Cuba’s central authorities, average Cubans in the countryside have taken to crafts, as well as other goods or services production, in the hopes of supplementing their state salaries and indirectly causing burgeoning markets in areas deemed untenable in the past.In spite of some drastic economic liberalization, though, Cuba still suffers from extreme inefficiencies with regards to food shortages, forcing the state to import almost 70% of its food rations.
Changing economic realities and liberalization on the island nation has also affected civil society. Independent (and illegal) Cuban journalists have begun to play larger roles in informing the population. This was first observed during a recent hurricane wherein cellphone users reported hurricane death tolls 15 hours before official state-controlled news reports. Indeed Cuba, just as China has been in recent decades, is beginning to struggle with the paradox between a more liberalized economy and limited political rights.
Although not necessarily a “Cuban Spring”, the communist state’s historically brutal treatment of political dissidents has been scaled back following some of Raul’s reforms towards greater technology usage. Amongst the most prominent is Yoani Sanchez, who has garnered international praise for her blog Generacion Y, and remains intent on promoting Cuba’s limited Blogosphere, despite threats from police authorities and a new law denying exit visas to anyone seeking to “undermine Cuba’s communist political system.”
In an ironic turnaround, Cuba’s historical fear over external challenges from the U.S or other “imperialists” have gone the way of their Soviet and Chinese predecessors, as continued expansion amongst independent bloggers has led to increased internal political pressure and growing questions from the Cuban people over free expression and undue state interference.
Once upon a time, U.S-Cuban relations were seen as strategically necessary and commercially important for both nations’ long-term interests. With the demise of Spanish influence in Cuba following the Spanish-American War of 1898, Washington’s historic interests on the island nation remained concentrated on ensuring steady sugar and tobacco production, effectively creating an oligopsonistic-like relationship with U.S companies.
Batista’s rise in the 1930s increased diplomatic and economic ties between the two states, but also damaged Cuban perceptions of the U.S as a result of the growing levels of corruption, Mafia influence and diminished political liberties. As time recalls, it was Fidel Castro’s coup, combined with Soviet influence, the eventual Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis which effectively ended the relationship. The result of which was the longstanding, and effectively still present, U.S embargo.
Without jumping into a history lesson, it is still essential to note the importance of this once-friendly relationship and to consider what renewed trade and diplomatic relations could entail. The U.S Chamber of Commerce estimates a loss of 1.2 billion per year in exports to Cuba, along with the immense and unpredictable losses to the tourism industry with regards to U.S-based cruise liners, airlines and other associated costs.
On the Cuban side, liberalization will only serve to benefit the island, with lucrative expansions in tourism and increased investment helping the state overcome some its consumer product shortages.
Cuban-Americans, whose pernicious attitudes towards the Communist regime have helped sustain the embargo, are now beginning to steer clear from the staunchly anti-communist Republican Party towards the historically distrusted Democrats. Exit polls from the 2012 presidential election show a generational difference between Cuban-Americans old enough to remember the 1960s and younger Cuban-Americans who supported Obama en masse. Lifting the embargo on Cuba will likely have profound affects for the slow changes being implemented under Raul Castro, today it would appears that it is just a simple question of when.
– Cody Levine
(All Photos: Thy Anne/ The Political Bouillon. All Rights Reserved)