12 April 2008 06:00
From the ample girths and gold jewellery you could tell the Fuentes
family was doing well, and from the determined way in which its five
members strode into the shop you could tell they were about to do even
They had come for a Wanjiu pressure cooker and Daewoo washing machine,
counting out the money with a certain panache. Why not? To be fleshy and
flashy is to be part of Cuba's new revolutionary vanguard: Havana bling.
This was Dita, an electronics store in Galerias de Paseo, and it was an
incongruous scene. While Fidel Castro exhorted revolutionary solidarity
from a banner outside the shop, the family members could hardly see the
leader's words over the boxes they were hauling. Out on the street they
packed their trophies into a 10-year-old Ford and with a screech of the
tyres sped home. En route was the Karl Marx Theatre, but you doubted
they would stop to see what was on.
Cuba is changing. In the past few weeks the government has announced and
enacted a series of reforms unimaginable under Castro. It is now legal
to buy cellphones, computers and DVD players. Cubans may now rent cars
and stay at hotels previously reserved for foreigners. More
significantly, farmers can cultivate idle state land and buy equipment
without special permission.
Havana is buzzing with rumours of further announcements. Lifting
restrictions on foreign travel, perhaps, or strengthening the
near-worthless peso so more people can afford the goods that are priced
in a separate currency created for foreigners.
But optimism is cautious. So far the changes do not add up to
perestroika-style economic reforms, much less a glasnost-style cultural
opening. The one-party state is tinkering with its half-century-old
system to ease material hardship. The idea is to save communism in the
Caribbean, not abandon it.
Havana remains a sea of decrepitude. Traffic is a time-warp blend of
1950s American cars, three-wheel yellow cabs, Soviet-era Ladas and new
Chinese-made buses. Stallholders still offer meagre wares in an illegal
type of mouse capitalism. Most people are lean — if less gaunt than
before — thanks to easing food shortages.
"What the government is doing is a small first step," said a Western
diplomat. "They are doing the easy things and giving people more
freedoms. We are waiting for the big changes that will make a difference
economically. And that will be much harder to do."
The most important change is in agriculture, in which mismanagement has
shrivelled cash crops such as sugar, tobacco and coffee and forced the
lush island to import 80% of its food. Now decision-making has been
decentralised and some restrictions lifted to give farmers more
incentive to produce.
The other changes have merely legalised what has been common practice.
The moneyed Cubans listening to music by the pool bar in El Nacional
hotel this week were the same ones who were there a month ago. Many had
wangled computers, DVD players and cellphones long before the bans were
lifted. Those unable to afford such goods before still cannot afford them.
The announcements have signalled greater tolerance for displays of
wealth and, by extension, displays of inequality. "Before if you had
cash you would hide it but now people feel freer to show it," said the
It is not news to Cubans that a small minority of the 11-million
population is well off thanks to remittances from relatives in the
United States and shady hard-currency dealings. The offspring of
Communist Party officials are among the so-called "mickies" who flash
their designer gear.
Free universal education and healthcare remain solid but sanctioning
spending sprees on previously banned consumer goods has given ironic
resonance to revolutionary slogans.
"We can construct the most just society in the world," Castro's brave
words said in another banner overlooking the Carlos Tercero shopping
mall. Beneath it passed some families who had boxes marked Yamaha,
Samsung and Phillips, and many who did not.
Jose, a waiter at a state restaurant who earns $18 a month, was off
duty, sipping a soft drink with his nine-year-old daughter. The
neighbouring table's family was clustered around a newly purchased $260
DVD player and sorting through a hawker's pirated wares. "We've got a
VHS player but you can't get films for it anymore," Jose said. "My
daughter doesn't have cartoons."
It is no coincidence that Jose was black and the neighbouring family
white. Racism is illegal on the island but paler-skinned Cubans dominate
government and the economy and are more likely to have relatives in the US.
The authorities appear uncomfortably aware that lifting economic
restrictions risks exposing and compounding that inequality, at least in
the short term. Speakers at a state-sponsored Intellectuals' Conference
last week welcomed the reforms but hinted that social divisions could
Raul Castro knows reform is essential. Nobody starves, but most Cubans
struggle to put decent food on the table. Since taking over from his
ailing brother, Fidel, in 2006, a transition confirmed with Raul's
inauguration as president last month, the 76-year-old has repeatedly
spoken of the need to improve an economy, 90% of which is controlled by
Only so much ruin can be blamed on the US embargo, and when the Castro
brothers die, taking with them the revolution's founding legitimacy, its
fate will hinge on delivering better material conditions, said one
Havana economist: "They know they have maybe five years to turn things
around. It's fix or perish."
Sceptics say the effort is doomed and that Cuba will remain an outpost
of unworkable ideology until the day the place implodes. Others paint a
rosier scenario for a government with several advantages: a cowed
opposition and submissive population; subsidised Venezuelan oil courtesy
of President Hugo Chávez; strengthening ties with Asia and Latin
America; and the example of China's and Vietnam's communists
successfully riding economic liberalisation.
Raul can already boast one remarkable feat: he has tamed the big brother
who used to rail against the reforms now unfurling. No one knows whether
Raul has persuaded the sickly Fidel to go along or has simply overruled him.
The bigger unknown is how Cubans will react. Being given a little more
economic opportunity could sate or whet the yearning for change, and
shore up or undermine the regime. It is Pandora's Box and opening the
lid even a fraction is a gamble