Los campos de concentración de Castro
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Hello from Havana

Hello from Havana
Nuanced but unmistakable stirrings of change in Cuba
by Jorge I. Dominguez

President Raúl Castro's principal contribution thus far to the lives of
ordinary Cubans has been that television soap operas now start on time.
He often reminds his fellow citizens of this seemingly impossible
accomplishment, after decades during which his elder brother commanded
the airwaves and disrupted all public and personal schedules. But he
alluded to this achievement most cleverly last December, prompting
laughter with the opening sentence of his remarks before a summit
meeting of the presidents of the Latin American countries in Bahia,
Brazil, hosted by Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
According to Cuba's official press reports, Castro began, "I hope that
our colleague and dear friend Lula will not complain because I give
shorter speeches than Chávez's."

The presidential summit was one stop on Raúl Castro's first
international trip since becoming Cuba's acting president in August 2006
(when Fidel Castro was rushed to the hospital), and in that one
sentence, he made several points. To most of the Latin American
presidents, who did not know him well, and indeed to his fellow Cubans,
he demonstrated that even a 78-year-old General of the Army could have a
sense of humor. To the same audiences, but also to the incoming Obama
administration, he demonstrated some distance and independence from
Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, notwithstanding the tight economic
and political bonds between their two countries. This was only the most
recent and most public instance of Raúl Castro's reiterated mocking
comparison between Chávez's propensity to speak forever and his own much
shorter and self-disciplined speeches. (Of course, all those in the
audience also knew that he was poking fun not just at Chávez but at his
brother, who never met a time limit he did not despise.) And, finally,
he highlighted, especially for his own people, that he honors and
respects the time of others.

Raúl Castro's military style of life cherishes punctuality and
efficiency. Schedules, all schedules, even those for TV telenovelas,
should be observed. Even during the waning moments of Fidel Castro's
rule, the time of Cubans was frequently occupied by marches,
mobilizations, and the need to listen to the logorrheic Maximum Leader.
There was even a cabinet minister in charge of what Fidel Castro called
the "Battle of Ideas." Now, marches occur on designated public holidays.
And the minister in charge of the Battle of Ideas lost his job in
March–and his ministry was disbanded.

Economic Evolution

The nuances in Cuban public life since Raúl became president in his own
right in February 2008 are evident as well in the enactment of
economic-policy reforms that were rolled out immediately following his
formal installation. Consider some examples. Previously, Cubans had not
been able to stay at hotels or eat at restaurants designed for
international tourists, even if they had the funds to pay, unless they
were on official business; now they were given access to all these
facilities, so long as they could pay. Cubans had also been prohibited
from purchasing cell phones and subscribing to such services unless
officially authorized to do so. They were not allowed to purchase
computers or DVD players. Now they were able to purchase such products
so long as they had the funds.

How the Cuban government adopted these changes is important. It could
simply have announced a general deregulation of prohibitions regarding
purchases of consumer durables, for example. Instead, the government
made each of these announcements separately: one week you could stay at
tourist hotels, the next week you could purchase a computer, the
following week you could obtain cell-phone services, and so forth. The
government even announced that some products would be deregulated for
purchase in 2009 (air conditioners) or 2010 (toasters).

This method of deregulating implied a desire to win political support
over time, not all at once. It communicated that the government retained
the right to micromanage the economy, deregulating product by product
and service by service. The government also signaled that it expected to
remain in office for years to come, behaving in the same way. Finally,
most Cubans knew that they could have been purchasing these same
consumer durables all along, albeit only on the black market. Thus the
policy of postponed deregulation implied an official tolerance of some
current criminality (knowing that some Cubans would buy toasters
illegally in 2008, instead of waiting for 2010), because the government
valued its economic micromanagement more.

Whom the government sought to benefit was equally newsworthy. In its
most revolutionary phase, during the 1960s, the Cuban government adopted
strongly egalitarian policies. Many Cubans came to believe in
egalitarian values and resented the widening of inequalities in the
1990s. Consider, then, Raúl's reforms. Hotels and restaurants designed
for international tourist markets are expensive; so, too, are computers
and DVD players. When these economic changes were announced in 2008, the
median monthly salary of Cubans amounted to about $17: that is, the
average monthly salary was below the World Bank's worldwide standard for
poverty, which is one dollar per day. To be sure, Cubans had free access
to education and healthcare and subsidized access to some other goods
and services. Nevertheless, only a small fraction of Cubans could take
advantage of these new economic policies, because the purchases of such
consumer durables and the access to such tourist services had to be paid
for in dollar-equivalent Cuban currency at dollar-equivalent
international prices. (Cuba has two currencies; the peso convertible is
a close equivalent to the dollar, whereas the peso is worth about
$0.04.) Raúl's government was appealing to the upper-middle-class

Making Difficult Decisions

I have emphasized Raúl's penchant for humor and nuance because
Washington and Miami have not taken much notice of these traits. At the
same time, no one should underestimate his capacity for decisiveness. A
salient feature in his biography is his long-standing role as Cuba's
equivalent of a chief operating officer. President Fidel Castro made the
decision to dispatch some 300,000 Cuban troops to two wars in Angola and
one in Ethiopia from the mid 1970s to the early 1990s, but it was
Minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces and General of the Army Raúl
Castro whose officers recruited, trained, promoted, equipped, and
steeled these armies for battle. The United States lost the war in
Vietnam. The Soviet Union lost the war in Afghanistan. Cuban troops won
the three African wars in which they fought. Cuba's was the only
communist government during the entire Cold War that successfully
deployed its armed forces across the oceans. And the "worker bee" for
those victories was Raúl.

Within the first calendar year of his presidency, Raúl gave another
example of this decisiveness: the reform of Cuba's pension laws. Cuban
law authorized and funded the retirement of women at age 55 and of men
at age 60. In December 2008, the retirement ages were raised to 60 and
65 respectively. The speed of the change signaled as well a key
difference betwee
n the Castro brothers.

It had long been a matter of public record that Cuban life expectancy
had lengthened to reach the levels of the North Atlantic countries.
Cuban demographers had also faithfully recorded that Cuba has been below
the population replacement rate since 1978. They had developed various
forecasts that showed that its population would age rapidly, creating a
vast problem of pension liabilities, and then decline. The demographers
committed only one error: they expected the demographic decline to set
in near the year 2020, but the population has already declined (net of
emigration) in two of the last three years.

Notwithstanding this abundance of information, Fidel chose not to act.
The fiscal crisis of the state was much less fun than leading street
marches to denounce U.S. imperialism. But Raúl's prompt and effective
change of the pension laws, making use of information supplied by social
scientists, is yet another illustration of the difference between the
brothers as rulers. And, of course, the one obvious change that was not
made to the pension laws demonstrates as well that even a powerful
government senses some limits to its power: although the life expectancy
of women is longer, the pension reform retained the lower retirement age
for them. Raúl Castro doesn't dare take a perk like early retirement
away from Cuban women.

Political Authoritarianism

The Castro brothers' styles of rule of course show important
similarities on matters that do and should matter in assessing their
political regime. Cuba remains a single-party state that bans opposition
political parties and independent associations that may advance
political causes. The government owns and operates all television and
radio stations, daily newspapers, and publishing houses. The number of
candidates equals the number of seats to be filled in elections for the
National Assembly. The constraints on civil society remain severe, even
if there has been since the early 1990s a somewhat greater margin of
autonomy for communities of faith, some of which (including Roman
Catholic archdioceses) are permitted to publish magazines.

The two brothers have also demonstrated a strong preference for ruling
with a small number of associates whom they have known for many years.
For example, when Raúl became president formally in February 2008, he
had the right to make wholesale changes in the top leadership. Instead,
the president and his seven vice presidents had a median birth year of
1936. Raúl went a step further. He created a small steering committee
within the larger Political Bureau of the Communist Party–and the
members of the new committee were the exact same seven. Raúl's buddies
are the gerontocrats with whom he chooses to govern.

Yet there are stirrings of change. Although National Assembly elections
are uncompetitive, they provide a means to express some opposition to
the government. The official candidates are presented in party lists;
each voting district elects two to five deputies from those lists and
the number of candidates equals the number of posts to be filled in that
district. The government urges voters to vote for the entire list, but
voters have been free to vote for some but not all candidates on the
list, thereby expressing some displeasure. The number of nonconforming
voters (voted blank, null, or selectively) exceeded 13.4 percent of the
votes cast in the most recent (January 2008) National Assembly
elections–1.1 million voters. Both the percentage and the number of
nonconforming voters were slightly larger than in the 2003 election,
with the largest expression of nonconformity recorded in the province
named City of Havana.

Yet another sign of change arises from Raúl's own family. His daughter,
Mariela Castro, has been for some years the director of Cuba's center
for the study of sexuality. This center has been principally known,
however, for its advocacy for, and defense of, the rights of
homosexuals, including special training for Cuban police officers,
formulating changes in regulations, and disseminating information
designed to create safer spaces for homosexuals.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Cuban government pursued very harsh
policies toward homosexuals. In the early stages of the HIV/AIDS
epidemic in the 1980s, those who tested HIV-positive were automatically
compelled to enter a quarantined facility at the cost of their jobs and
family lives. At the time of the Mariel emigration crisis in 1980, the
government activated its affiliated mass organizations to make life
impossible for homosexuals, fostering their emigration under duress. And
in the mid 1960s, the government had established the "military units to
aid production" (UMAP). These were concentration camps to which "social
deviants," mainly but not exclusively male homosexuals, were sent to be
turned, somehow, into "real men." The commander in chief of the UMAP
was, of course, Armed Forces Minister Raúl Castro.

It is unlikely that Raúl is a closet liberal, though there is evidence
that he has been a loving father. It is not impossible, however, that he
regrets having served as an architect of repression over the lives of
many Cubans–not just homosexuals–especially in the 1960s, but also at
other times. His daughter's work during the current decade may be an
instrument for elements of social liberalism.

U.S.-Cuban Relations

Raúl Castro understood earlier than his brother that the collapse of the
Soviet Union and European communist regimes implied that Cuba had to
change more and faster than Fidel wanted. In 1994, in the most public
difference yet between the brothers, Raúl favored liberalizing
agricultural markets, allowing producers to sell at market prices, even
though Fidel remained opposed. Raúl showed more sustained interest in
the economic reforms of China and Vietnam than did Fidel. And by the
late 1990s, Raúl began to give the speech that he has now repeated many
times, most notably this April in response to the Obama administration's
beginning of changes in U.S.-Cuba policies (authorizing Cuban Americans
to travel and send remittances to Cuba): his government is ready to
discuss anything on the U.S. government agenda.

In January 2002, Raúl even praised the Bush administration for having
given advance notice of the incarceration of Taliban prisoners at the
U.S. base at Guantánamo Bay. He also praised the professional
military-to-military cooperation between the two countries' officers
along the U.S. base's boundary perimeter, as well as between the coast
guards in the Straits of Florida. In August 2006, his first public
remarks upon becoming acting president made just two points: he did not
much like to speak in public, and he was ready to negotiate with the
United States. And this April, he took the time to make it clear that
negotiating with the United States about any topic did, indeed, include
discussion about political prisoners in Cuban jails. He made a specific
proposal to exchange such political prisoners (estimated by Cuban
human-rights groups as between 200 and 300 people) for five Cuban spies
in U.S. prisons.

The Context for Change

The pace of political and economic change in Cuba has been slow by world
standards. But the pace of social change has been very fast. Cuba's
people live long lives, thanks in part to good, albeit frayed,
healthcare services–free of charge. Cuban children go to sch
ool and
many become professionals. Indeed, Cuba's principal area of export
growth is the provision of healthcare services to the people of other
countries. Until this most recent development, however, Cuba had
exemplified how a half-century of investment in human capital could
generate very poor economic-growth returns. Yet Cubans since the early
1990s have demonstrated entrepreneurial capacities in creating small
businesses, whenever the government has permitted them, suggesting that
with better economic incentives there could be a productive combination
that would lead to economic growth. Cubans can talk seemingly endlessly
at officially sponsored meetings, yet they demonstrate in other settings
a capacity for insight, criticism, and imagination that could readily
contribute as well to much faster political transformation.

U.S. policy toward Cuba for the bulk of this past decade has assisted
the Castro government's state security in shutting out information from
the outside world: the United States banned the shipment of
information-technology products, instead of facilitating Cuban
electronic access to the world, and allowed Cuban Americans to visit
their relatives only once every three years, instead of enabling cousins
from both sides of the Straits of Florida to speak face to face about
how a different, better Cuba might be constructed. (The United States
has even protected ordinary Cubans from the Harvard Alumni Association,
which could not lead tour groups there.) Perhaps the United States will
stop being an obstacle to change in Cuba during the century's second

Jorge I. Domínguez, who most recently visited Cuba in March, is Madero
professor of Mexican and Latin American politics and economics, vice
provost for international affairs, and special adviser to the dean of
the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for international studies. He shared a
previous overview of U.S.-Cuba policy with this magazine's readers in
"Your Friend, Fidel" (July-August 2000, page 35).

Hello from Havana | July-August 2009 (1 July 2009)

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