Blog: Nothing is what it seems in Cuba

Communist Cuba is changing at an unprecedented pace. But nothing is what it seems in Cuba. Gert Oostindie reports after making a short television documentary on the eve of president Obama’s visit.

Classic Cadillacs and other old timers are omnipresent in television reports on contemporary Cuba. Nice pics, but unfortunately they’re recycled ad nauseam. It’s not as if these photos misrepresent the endurance of these pre-Revolutionary flagships of American capitalism or the Cuban ingenuity in keeping them moving. It’s just that there is so much more below the surface. Literally, actually. Just open the hood of virtually any old timer, and you’ll see that there is nothing American there, but a European or, more likely, Asian motor propelling a sixty-plus-year-old car.

Nothing is what it seems in Cuba. Economic liberalization is proceeding at unprecedented speed, not because the Castro brothers had ever wanted to head that way, but because there was no other choice. Much of the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution were built on massive Soviet support. The collapse of the Soviet bloc ended all that and brought the Cuban regime at the brink of collapse in the 1990s. Survival was built on several pillars. Chavez’s Bolivarian Republic helped the Cubans out in times of austerity, but that will soon be over. Not so the other factors that made the communist regime finally find sustained economic growth: hiring out medical doctors abroad, remittances from the Cuban communities in the US and Europe, tourism including private bed & breakfasts and restaurants, as well as joint ventures with foreign capitalist businesses.

The opening up of the economy has brought spectacular economic growth to Cuba, tripling per capita income in two decades. But this has come at a price. Inequality is on the rise as those with access to remittances, tourists or foreign business have infinitely more chances to do well than the majority confined to the still dominant government sector, where efficiency is as lacking as reward. The government may continue stating that it aims to ‘perfect socialism’ by adapting to the new global realities, but the fact is that beneath the veneer of a society where all are equal, deep inequalities are on the rise – and this growing disparity has a worrisome regional and racial dimension. As in pre-Revolutionary times, the urban-rural divide seems growing. More troubling still, Afro-Cubans have less access to remittances and (hence) less chances to start their own tourist businesses or other entrepreneurial ventures.

Surely the Cuban government is aware of these problems, and behind closed doors, there are serious debates going on. But as always, the leadership refrains from discussing such problems and conflicting points of view in the open – again, nobody can tell what’s really happening. One thing is absolutely clear though: while the Cuban leadership has allowed for more economic liberalization than ever before, there is no intention whatsoever to respond to internal dissidents or to external pressure to open up the political system. And yet it does not take a wizard to conclude that this strategy will not hold out indefinitely. With tourists all around in ever greater numbers, with the Internet finally available to growing sections of the Cuban population and with the steady growth of a keenly capitalist middle class, political change will follow. Not likely within a few years’ time, but eventually, yes. After all, these are the Americas, where democracy may have faltered time and again, but is widely taken to be the right model anyway.

Just some thoughts, scribbled down while making a documentary for Dutch television on the eve of president Obama’s visit to Havana, a visit confirming rather than starting a new phase in Cuban history, a new phase with both gains and losses.

Click here to watch the trailer and the documentary.

(Gert Oostindie is director of KITLV and professor of History at Leiden University. Oostindie’s principal areas of research have been comparative Caribbean studies and Dutch colonial history)

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