Cuba Undertakes Reforms in Midst of Economic Crisis
Cuba Undertakes Reforms in Midst of Economic Crisis
New America Media, Commentary, Roger Burbach, Posted: Sep 20, 2009
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Editor's Note: Hit by the global economic crisis, a drop in tourism and
the price of nickel, Cuba desperately needs to implement agricultural
reforms, writes NAM contributor Roger Burbach.
Carlos picks me up with his dated Soviet-made Lada at the Jose Marti
International Airport on a hot sweltering day in Havana. It's been eight
months since I've seen him, last January to be precise, when I came to
the island on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. "How's it
been?" I ask him as we begin the 20 minute drive to central Havana. With
a scowl, he replies: "Not so good, nothing seems to get easier." He goes
on to say that foodstuffs are as difficult as ever to come by,
necessitating long waits in line for rationed commodities.
I am not surprised, as I had been reading in the international press
that Cuba has been compelled to curtail its food imports. Hit by the
global economic crisis, spending by tourists dropped off while the price
of nickel, Cuba's main mineral export, fell by more than half. This
meant that Cuba has no choice but to cut agricultural imports from its
main supplier, the United States. Credit purchases are not an option, as
the U.S. legislation in 2000, opening up agricultural sales to Cuba,
requires immediate payment in hard currency.
To add to its woes, devastating hurricanes hit Cuba in 2008, decimating
some of the country's sugar plantations, as well as its production of
vegetables and staple foods. The only bright light in the midst of this
food crisis is the implementation of reforms in the agricultural sector
under President Raul Castro, who took office from his brother, Fidel, in
February last year.
I am particularly interested in knowing how the distribution of 690,000
hectares of idle lands to 82,000 rural families, in process when I left
Cuba in January, has affected the domestic supply of fresh produce. On
my second day, I go to one of the open markets in Havana where I talk to
Margarita, who is selling undersized tomatoes. She says they come from
her father's new farm. "We started cultivating tomatoes, as well as
other vegetables," she says. "We even hired workers, which is now
allowed. But then, as the crops began to mature, we got very little
water from the state-owned irrigation system." Fearing the worst, I ask
her if the state is discriminating against the new producers. "No" she
says, "the wells and the irrigation system simply didn't have any gas
for the pumps."
Later in the day, I meet with Armando Nova, an agricultural economist at
the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy. I had also talked with
him in January and he had then been optimistic about the coming year. I
ask him what's gone wrong and he says, "We're caught between the effects
of the global economic crisis and the difficulties of implementing the
reforms." He goes on to say that there has actually been an increase in
fresh produce since the beginning of the year, but it is hardly
noticeable in the markets because of the increased demand, a result of
the drop in international imports.
As to the economic reforms, Nova says: "The top leadership around Raul
is committed to a fundamental shake up of the economy, but change is
slow because of bureaucratic obstacles." The very process of
distributing idle lands requires 13 steps of paper work submitted to
different agencies. And while the government is committed to providing
the new farmers with the inputs needed to start up production, many of
them are not delivered because they are simply not available due to the
Nova's view that reforms are inevitable is reinforced in a special
report on the economy released by Inter Press Service (IPS), which is
affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Relations: "There is an ever
broadening consensus about the necessity of a profound transformation of
the Cuban economic model. … It is recognized that the future strategy
should include non-state forms of property — not only in agriculture,
but also in manufacturing and services." The publication asserts, "Fifty
years of socialism in Cuba have to be re-evaluated," particularly the
role of the state and the need to use market mechanisms.
To facilitate this transformation, the government is opening up a 45-day
public discussion that includes union centers, schools, universities,
community organizations and the base of the Cuban Communist party.
According to materials sent out to orientate the discussions, the
participants should "not only identify problems, but also suggest
solutions…The analysis ought to be objective, sincere, valiant,
creative, … carried out in absolute liberty with respect for discrepant
According to Orlando Cruz of the Institute of Philosophy, whom I met at
a conference in Havana on social movements, "socialism is to be
re-founded in Cuba. We have to totally discard the Soviet model that so
badly served us." I ask whether Cuba will now move towards the Chinese
model. Like others in Cuba in the party and the government I have asked
the same question. He responds somewhat curtly: "We respect the Chinese
model, but we have to follow our own process and history. China is a
totally different country." Cruz makes clear that there will be
meaningful democratic participation in the new Cuba: "We will not allow
the formation of a petit-bourgeoisie to control or distort the process.
We want to construct an authentic democratic socialism. It will be
deeper and more participatory than that of the social democracies of
I first went to Cuba in 1969 and have visited the country every decade
since then. There have been many challenging moments in the revolution's
history, and now we are witnessing another one, as the country embarks
on an endeavor to free the economy from the shackles of its bureaucracy.
The fate of this move depends on the ability of society at the grass
roots to exert a greater role in the country's economic and political
institutions. If this effort succeeds, the Cuban revolution will be
opening a new path for socialism in the 21st century.
Roger Burbach is the author of "The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and
Global Justice," and the Director of the Center for the Study of the
Americas based in Berkeley, Calif. He is working on a new book with
Gregory Wilpert, "The Renaissance of Socialism in Latin America."
Cuba Undertakes Reforms in Midst of Economic Crisis – NAM (20 September