Saturday, January 31, 2009

Whither the Cuban revolution?

Whither the Cuban revolution?
Sat. Jan 31 - 5:41 AM

January has marked a seminal point in Latin American political history –
the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. Much has been written
about its socio-economic successes and political failures, its twists
and turns, and its ability to adapt and, ultimately, to survive.

One must remember that George W. Bush was the 10th U.S. president vowing
to overthrow Cuba's revolutionary government; thus far, the record is 0-10.

Still, there are many constants in the revolutionary process. Excellent
education and health benefits continue to be enjoyed by many Cubans. The
country's literacy and infant mortality rates are comparatively better
than those of the United States.

But there is change in the air in Cuba.

When a pragmatic Raúl Castro eventually became interim president of Cuba
in the summer of 2006, he swiftly instituted a series of key measures to
gauge popular reaction to existing government policy and to initiate
necessary changes on the island. But before doing so, many thousands of
meetings had been organized at workplaces, neighbourhood associations,
schools and union halls – resulting in some 1.2 million comments and
suggestions being submitted.

It seems clear to any dispassionate observer of things Cuban that the
Castro government has listened intently to those criticisms and has
moved to implement many of them. Perhaps not at the pace that some
Cubans would wish; but still, the right governmental signals are being
sent to the citizenry.

When Raúl Castro officially took over as Cuban president in early 2008,
a number of these changes were deftly put into place. For the most part,
they tend to fall into two broad categories – those of a limited and
symbolic nature and importance, and those of a more meaningful and
far-reaching significance.

Among the former can be singled out the lifting of prohibitions on
Cubans to buy a number of consumer durables. For instance, the Cuban
government authorized the purchase of cellphones, DVD players, kitchen
appliances and computers.

Another important gesture was the decision to allow Cubans to stay at
hotels on the island. Prior to this, opponents of the Cuban government
had complained bitterly about what they regarded as "tourism apartheid"
– since vacation resorts were reserved almost exclusively for foreign

A major symbolic reform was the removal of state-imposed salary limits,
which is important in a revolutionary socialist society where, prior to
1990, the maximum salary had been 5.5 times the lowest in the country.

Agrarian reforms were also introduced, with increased emphasis on
internal food production since food imports cost the Cuban government $8
billion last year. The reforms in the farming sector are particularly
important, since 51 per cent of arable land is either not being farmed
or is being done so inefficiently. This land will now be distributed in
long-term leases to private farmers, and already thousands of
applications have been approved.

Further reform measures are currently being thoroughly debated and may
well be introduced in the coming months. For example, there is talk of
eliminating travel restrictions to allow Cubans to move about more
freely (either to leave Cuba or to move to Havana from the countryside).

The deregulation of the rental (and possibly sale) of property is also a
possibility that would be extremely popular among Cubans, as would a
similar measure to allow them to purchase automobiles for private use.
Finally, there is a clear determination to reduce the differential
between the "convertible peso" and the Cuban peso, and ultimately to put
in place a single monetary currency.

Raúl Castro has also offered to discuss a normalization of relations
with Washington – providing there are no pre-conditions and that Cuban
sovereignty is respected. Just last month, he suggested a meeting with
then President-elect Barack Obama in Guantánamo to set a better course
for U.S.-Cuban relations.

Clearly, the Cuban revolution has persevered, under incredible internal
and external pressures, for 50 years. If anything, the Cubans have
learned how to survive under the most adverse of circumstances –
including three hurricanes in 2008 that caused $10 billion worth of
damage to the island.

So, if the past is any indication, the major planks of the Cuban
revolution will continue on under Raúl Castro's leadership – admittedly
in a different form and design (perhaps with greater economic
liberalization) – for the foreseeable future.

Peter McKenna and John M. Kirk are co-authors of the forthcoming book
Competing Voices From Revolutionary Cuba.

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