Saturday, 30 April 2011

Cuba's Grand Experiment

Cuba's latest Party Congress seemed indicative of a global trend towards market liberalization. Cuba, one of the old stalwarts of the state-run economy, seems to have finally abandoned its' burdensome regulations concerning business. Cubans are now allowed to run their own enterprises without being branded as criminals, and state subsidies are now targeted to the neediest rather than given out to everyone indiscriminately.

It reminds me of when Deng Xiaoping opened up the Chinese economy by announcing that to be rich is to be glorious, and by saying that "no matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat." Since then, China has become a world power with centers of incredible prosperity. It has also become a country where there are increasingly widening gaps between the poor and the rich, and it faces the somewhat unique situation of a country that has a neo-liberal economy with few welfare programs governed by a totalitarian police state. If one uses the rough and sometimes imperfect Gini coefficient to stake this out statistically,  China's income inequality is now higher than most developed nations, and it is still increasing steadily. Chinese citizens also suffer from the fundamental lack of respect the government has for basic human rights, as the arbitrary arrests of human rights activists such as Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaobo clearly indicate.

Still, it is obvious China's ascent is something Cuba wants to mirror. I also have a dim sense of optimism that the Cuban government will reform itself politically. One of the changes laid down in the Congress was a limit on terms, and the Cuban government has been releasing political prisoners.

Regardless, many people will believe that it is the American embargo that is killing the island rather than any lack of economic or political reform. It is true that at least some of the dearth in foreign exchange and economic prosperity is due to this terribly stagnant policy, but it does not represent the whole picture. Hopefully, these tentative steps towards reform will coalesce into a thawing in what has been perhaps the most contentious relationship in the Western hemisphere. The Obama administration has seemed open to this possibility. If this is done right, both countries will benefit enormously.

Most of all, I hope the Cuban people can benefit from this grand experiment. Castro made waves when he said the Cuban system wasn't even working for Cuba anymore, and I cannot help but agree with him. On a recent visit to Cuba, I could not help but notice the relative poverty of the areas outside the resorts. One night, I met one of the security guards who patrolled the beaches. I talked to him at length thanks to some translation help from a friend I was with, and after asking him a couple of trivial questions about baseball, I wondered what his life was like.

I'll never forget what he said. He loved Castro, and he loved Che, but he said his life was very hard. That was obvious. The man looked like he was 65, yet he was still working hard, and doing what amounted to a young man's job. He said his family often struggled with food. I gave the guy twenty dollars, since he spent two nights regaling us with his stories, and he seemed to be a nice guy. I knew too that he would be able to get much more from these twenty dollars than I ever could. A friend I was with gave him some money too. His face simply lit up.

His name was Antonio. He said he wanted to emigrate to America, and seek a better life there, but he was too afraid to do so.

Hopefully, with the advent of economic and political reforms, prosperity will come to him and other Cubans, rather than lurking just around the corner.

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