Report from Cuba
By Cliff DuRand
When Secretary of State John Kerry officially inaugurated the US Embassy in Havana last week, the US flag flew there for the first time in over a half century. Many see this as the beginning of an “Americanization” of Cuba. Cuba sees it otherwise. Ever protective of its hard won sovereignty, Cubans see challenges in the new relationship with the US, but they are hardly ready to open the doors wide to the US.
Nor is the US ready to do that. The embargo (which Cuba calls a blockade) is still in place until Congress decides to remove it (not likely anytime soon). Designed to bring about regime change by imposing hardship on the Cuban people, that policy has been counterproductive, as President Obama acknowledged. So he has used his executive discretion to soften the embargo by opening the way to easier travel to Cuba and even some limited trade with Cuban entities that are “independent of the government.”
There remain obstacles to normal state-to-state relations. High on the Obama administration’s list is compensation for US$1.9 billion of property that was nationalized in the 1960s. At the time Cuba offered to pay this with bonds. Other countries accepted this, but the US refused. Had it accepted, by now this debt would have been paid off. If these claims were to be negotiated now, Cuba would counter with its claim for US$117 billion of damages it has suffered due to the blockade.
There is also the US occupation of territory at Guantánamo, which Cuba considers illegal. And there is the US$11 million the US spends in support of “dissidents”—in violation of diplomatic accords. The US considers it has the right to try to change Cuban society to its liking—an interference in internal affairs that we would not tolerate for a minute.
We are still far from having normal relations with Cuba. The US recognized its government, but is not yet ready to accept it.
I have just returned from four weeks in Cuba. One can readily see many changes. But these are not due to US influence. They are the result of a deliberate reform process that has been underway since 2007. While I was there, public Internet Wi-Fi hotspots were opened on a couple of busy downtown streets. The sidewalks were lined with people, young and old, absorbed with their latest gadgets. It looked a lot like a scene in the US.
Bright new yellow buses ply the main streets bearing the word coperativa in large letters. They are part of a 109-member cooperative of bus drivers who rent the vehicles from the state and operate their own transportation business. This is a part of the reforms in which the state is turning many economic activities over to working people.
Cuba is moving away from the top-down state socialism it adapted from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and is reinventing it. It is reinvigorating civil society by decentralizing government functions and diversifying its economy, opening space for more participation in decision-making. In doing this it is applying lessons learned from its agriculture. For decades the country’s most productive agriculture was its small private farms and cooperatives. After trade with Eastern countries stopped in the 1990s, Cuba couldn’t get the chemical, fuel, and machine parts its massive state farms required. So it abandoned the industrial model for agriculture and converted to small-scale organic farming. Cuba is the first country in the world to make this conversion. It is now applying these principles to its urban society as well.
You can see the state shedding many activities with the establishment of cooperative restaurants being run by former state employees who now own their own businesses and jobs. I had a reasonably priced and tasty meal at one, La Casona, which was established a little over a year ago with 20 members. It has prospered and now has 43 members who each take home a salary and share of the profits that is seven times the average income of state workers.
Similarly, there are private restaurants called paladares. These began 20 years ago as small family restaurants in people’s homes that could employ only family members. Now under the reforms, they have been expanded and can even hire wageworkers outside the family.
Cooperative and family restaurants now offer appealing meals to tourists, a welcome alternative to the bland food and poor service usually found in state restaurants. Cuba’s leaders have recognized that the state cannot do everything.
I am organizing an educational trip to Cuba next Thanksgiving week to learn about its organic agriculture and cooperatives. There are lessons we can learn from our neighbor to the south. The freer travel our government now allows us to see this unique society up close. What you will see is a society in motion.
Cliff DuRand is a Research Associate at the Center for Global Justice and a retired philosophy professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore. He has been organizing educational trips to Cuba for 25 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.