Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Keeping Cuba on the economic road

Keeping Cuba on the economic road
By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

I n many ways, this communist island in the Caribbean has managed to
survive despite the odds.

Since the revolution which climaxed on 1 January 1959, Cuba has seen the
attempted Bay of Pigs invasion, repeated assassination attempts against
Fidel Castro, the collapse of its main benefactor the Soviet Union, and
a decades-long US trade embargo.

One of the effects of the embargo is that the streets of the Cuban
capital, Havana, are still filled with many of the same old American
cars that were here when Fidel Castro came to power 50 years ago.

Geovani Perez drives a red and cream 1959 Buick convertible. It was
built the year that Fidel Castro came to power. Like much of the Cuban
economy, it's still running - if only just.

After years of economic hardship, Cubans have become masters of

Geovani's Buick no longer has its original engine. During the fuel
shortages its gas-guzzling V8 was replaced by a home-made mix of a
Japanese diesel engine and an old Soviet gearbox.

"It's really hard to get parts here," he told me, "We have to machine
tool a lot of parts ourselves or make them by hand."

He would rather have a new car, but he couldn't even if he could afford
one. The only cars that Cubans are legally allowed to buy or sell are
those built before the revolution.

It's the same with housing. Most Cubans have title to their homes and
can pass them on to their children but there is no open market to buy or
sell land or property.


One of the goals of Fidel Castro's revolution was to create an
egalitarian society. Private enterprise was banned and everyone from
doctors to factory workers was paid the same.

Today Cuba has one of the most centrally controlled, state-run economies
left in the world. It is inefficient and the average salary is barely
$25 (£17) a month.

Since taking over from his ailing brother - temporarily in 2006 and
officially from February 2008 - Raul Castro has initiated some modest
but symbolic reforms.

In a keynote speech to the National Assembly earlier this year, he
denounced the concept of egalitarianism.

"Socialism means... equality of rights and opportunities, not salaries.
Equality does not mean egalitarianism," he said.

President Castro has ordered that workers should receive bonuses based
on productivity. He has also started to offer unproductive state-owned
land to private farmers.

Drive out of the capital and one of the most striking aspects of the
countryside is how much land has gone to weed.

Cuba should be self-sufficient in food but instead spends $2bn (£1.4bn)
a year on imports.

It is the small private sector which produces most of the food - farmers
like Javier Perez who has a smallholding on the outskirts of Havana.

Mr Perez has done well in recent years. Once he has met his state quota
of fruit and vegetables he sells the rest of his bananas, mangos and
guava at a farmers' market in the capital.

The farm has been in his family for several generations, although part
of it was appropriated after the revolution. Now it has been returned
and Mr Perez is busy with his pair of oxen, ploughing one of the fields
before planting more bananas.

"The land had been lying idle for ages so I asked if I could have it
back," he explained.

"They are paying more attention now to small farmers. We were ignored in
the past, now we have access to tools and fertilizers."

Politically, though, there are no signs of reform. Cuba remains a
one-party state and opposition groups are banned. A few critical voices
within the communist party are tolerated.

Felix Sautie is a devout Catholic and has been a Marxist since before
the revolution. Now he has put his name to a document entitled "Cuba
needs a democratic and participatory system".

"We are going through a very difficult period. You can't keep
disqualifying people because they hold a different opinion. We need
dialogue and the right to argue for or against things. It's the only way
of saving the revolution," he says.


Alongside the old American cars, the roads here are also full of old
Russian Ladas.

Drive past any school and the children's uniforms are another reminder
of the Soviet era. Primary school children wear red and white, with a
red neck scarf. Just like their former Soviet counterparts were, this
age group are called the Pioneers.

Education and health are both known here as "triumphs of the revolution".

Education is free right the way through to university and post-graduate
level and Cuba boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

The health statistics are equally impressive. All the key indicators
from infant mortality to life expectancy are among the best in the
Americas. Its doctor to patient ratio is one of the highest in the world.

Health care has now become a major export. Cuba sends tens of thousands
of doctors and health workers to some of the poorest parts of Latin
America and Africa.

Rolando Gonzalez is director of International Co-operation at Cuba's
Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"From the earliest days of the revolution, one of our objectives was to
let other countries in the third world share in our achievements.

"They are resources which we need too, but we share them with those who
have nothing. We've got 70,000 doctors, there are only 50,000 for the
whole of Africa."

The largest contingent of medical workers is in Venezuela, which
President Hugo Chavez pays for in oil.

It is one of the reasons why Cuba can afford to import the fuel which
keeps its classic old cars running on the roads.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2008/12/29 10:04:57 GMT

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