Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Voices of Change in Cuba Could Emerge from the Private Sector

Voices of Change in Cuba Could Emerge from the Private Sector / Iván García

Iván García, 30 July 2016 — One a hot afternoon in May, a Havana bicycle
taxi driver became upset over a fine of 700 pesos and managed to
overturn a government regulation which he considered arbitrary. This
triggered a flawlessly prepared legal argument, which culminated in a
protest by about forty taxi drivers in Revolution Square demanding their

Officials of the regime treated them with kid gloves. The government
dismissed the fines imposed on bicycle taxi drivers and promised to
investigate irregularities and complaints of corruption against state

Without fanfare and despite continuing abuses, they continue working in
different areas of Havana from which the government had tried to evict
them years earlier.

Given what happened in the capital and the fact that the protest was
covered by the independent press, one might think that the military
dictatorship had shown a preference for negotiation over brute force.

In an article published in Diario de Cuba, journalist Omar Lopez
Montenegro provided this analysis: "The protest in Revolution Square is
an event worthy of further study. Images show the bicycle taxi drivers
demonstrating an enviable level of organization, with their vehicles
advancing one behind another, creating a perception of numbers and power
focused on a specific issue. The protest upended a number of
stereotypes. People in Cuba lose their fear when they are motivated by a
matter they feel affects their interests. Opposition speeches heavily
laden with policy statements are simply not in sync with their reality."

I am struck by that last line. I have spoken to several of the pedicab
drivers who took part in the protests. They were not just looking for
attention. They only wanted their rights to be respected and for the
state to be more flexible when it comes to their jobs.

No leaders of the deflated and divided dissident movement got involved,
provided advice or put themselves at the forefront of the protest. The
reasons? They vary.

The drivers did not trust the opposition and did not want their
complaints to be politicized. There have been over a hundred disputes or
complaints by workers and small business owners since April 2010
according to an official with the National Office of Tax Administration
(ONAT), the body which oversees private sector employment.

"Before, when a self-employed worker believed he was being unfairly
treated by an inspector, the solution was to resolve the problem in a
fistfight or by paying some bum to beat the guy up. But not anymore. Now
they send well-written letters to high-ranking government officials, a
large percentage of whom agree with them on what needs to be done.
Complaints involve more than the need for a wholesale market and
lowering certain taxes. They are also demanding greater autonomy, the
ability to import goods from overseas and a legal framework that would
allow them to invest in their own country," says the official.

The private and cooperative sectors employ more than 700,000 workers.
That is thirty percent of the Cuban labor force. Ask Francisco Valido, a
former employee of a collectively owned bus company and open critic of
the regime, and he will point out the devious strategies used by special
services and government labor institutions, organizations which are
always inclined to negotiate.

Valido has given dozens of interviews to independent journalists and has
participated in programs by Radio Marti, a news outlet considered an
enemy by the Castro brothers and their followers. Yet despite all the
pressure exerted on him, they have never been able to remove him from
his job.

Valido wrote letters to the Council of State and the Ministry of
Transport, requesting a series of changes to the structure of
transportation cooperatives that would provide a more efficient service
to the population.

The state's tactic was to lease a taxi in his name in hard currency in
an attempt to silence him. "They will use any method of persuasion
possible as long as we do not report these cases to the alternative
press or consult an independent attorney," says the owner of a
restaurant who, when feeling mistreated, turns to the free press.

If any of the dissident leaders, who spend half the year travelling
abroad to participate events of greater or lesser importance, had
advised the workers at the cigar factory in Hoguin, perhaps their
attempt at a strike for better wages and working conditions would have
been successful.

According Oslay Dueñas, a former Labor Ministry official, "the
self-employment sector is the germ from which factions and leaders will
emerge to demand more fundamental economic reforms. They are a legal
force that within two years could include a million members and which
could provide higher quality services to millions of Cubans more
efficiently than the state."

The government knows this. That is why its strategy is to overwhelm them
with absurd regulations and excessive taxes.

As a story from World War II goes, Joseph Stalin's assistant mentioned
to him that the Vatican had declared war on the Soviet Union. The
butcher of Georgia asked, "And just how many tank divisions can these
people send to the front?" When no answer was forthcoming, he continued
making plans to fight the real enemy, Nazi Germany.

Putting this in the context of Cuba, the current group of dissidents
could not summon even a thousand people for a protest march and is being
worn down by disagreements and internal divisions.

It is private-sector entrepreneurs and the growing discontent of
state-sector workers, burdened with low salaries and the ineffectiveness
of government-run trade unions, that could bring about greater autonomy.

The tussle between the regime and the Havana transport workers is one
indication of this. Faced with the government's decision to regulate
fares, taxi drivers organized in order to sabotage the attempt by
employing legal strategies.

Today, the island is like a tender box. Any situation could set off a

But the voices of change, anonymous and silent, are to be found in the
private sector. They are the tanks Stalin was talking about.

Marti Noticias, July 28, 2016

Source: Voices of Change in Cuba Could Emerge from the Private Sector /
Iván García – Translating Cuba -
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