Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A street in Havana, Cuba’s capital city. (Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)
Cuban society seems to be in some kind of stupor. At this point in 2017, I should be writing about the constitutional reform project or the new fundamental rights Cuba needs. But right now, everything seems to be going slower than ever. We are facing a road so long that it makes us wonder more than ever about our direction and the future of our society. We have to build a democracy that respects the interests not only of the majority but also those of the minority.
We need a change in our political leadership - but no one knows how exactly Cuban citizens will participate in this process – and we need a democratic system. There have been some advances, but they have not yet been firmly established. For example, the growth of small-scale entrepreneurship in Cuba: over half a million citizens are in this sector. However, the government still announces new restrictions on them.
It seems that no one remembers that 2018 is just around the corner, the year that Raúl Castro said he would step down from power. Whoever his replacement might be will need strong popular support. There’s fear surrounding the idea of elections, but it is essential that our government has legitimacy.
Monetary unification, when our economy starts operating under one single currency, should be announced by one of the new leaders. Cuba has had two official currencies since 1994. The regime created the CUC (Peso Cubano Convertible) principally to facilitate the tourist transactions. The US dollar is equivalent to 25 Cuban pesos and around 87 cents of a CUC. The return to one single currency is one of Cuba’s main economic challenges.
This process could be a disaster under Cuba’s current circumstances. The leaders who’ll direct this change won’t have the moral support of the past generation, who participated in the Cuban Revolution.
The country’s government uses the word “conceptualisation” to describe its new economic model and the ambitious development plan that runs until 2030. But this “conceptualisation”, as it was called at the last congress of the Communist Party of Cuba in 2016, attempts to adapt Cuba’s socialist system while ignoring key aspects.
This project does not mention any changes to Cuba’s political and judicial system, as if was possible to separate these elements from the economic model. It also ignores the Marxist tenets that, at least according to official discourse, remain part of state’s ideology. The constitutional amendments have not been put up for open debate and a new electoral law has yet to be adopted.
The development plan was conceived on the basis of GDP growth averaging around seven per cent. Cuba’s economy ended 2016 in recession, despite the 2014 Foreign Investment Law and 2008 reforms that gave more autonomy to state-owned companies and allowed citizens to sell and buy vehicles and properties and create small businesses.
Cuba likes to boast of its famous achievements, its educational and health-care systems. But there are notable exceptions. One case was that of student Karla María Pérez González, from Universidad Central Marta Abreu de Las Villas, expelled earlier this year just because she belonged to +Somos, a political organization not recognised by the regime. Such action is unconstitutional and calls into question the universality of the right to education.
Cuban news media raises such problems, but there’s little conversation about the underlying causes. For instance, it’s all very well to talk about food shortages, but there’s little data about the challenges of our agriculture and the missed opportunities because there are no foreign investments. The regime chooses to frame food production as a question of national security.
And how will the changing relationship with the US affect Cuba’s economic situation?
The policy of normalisation with the United States seems to have been put on hold since June when President Donald Trump banned financial transactions with military-run companies and announced new travel restrictions. However, Trump’s statements in themselves made clear that the relationship with Cuba remains an issue in the White House.
The US business community is still very interested in investing in Cuba, and both Democrats and Republicans have discussed the embargo. But this is another crossroads. Is Cuba prepared for regular trading with the United States, like any other nation in the world?
I think not.
We have to consider how we would manage full diplomatic and economic relationships with Washington while maintaining our sovereignty.
A Cuba without an embargo could export and import products and services to the US, the biggest market in the world and just 90 nautical miles away from our shores. Foreign investment could be part of many sectors of our economy. But how would this be managed? Unrestricted trade comes with many of its own challenges.
Cubans need to empower themselves, and not because the US government says so but because we need new ways of political participation.
Cubans need to play an active part in changing our current policies and laws, and not just an abstract discussion about the future of our country.
It is impossible to envisage Cuba’s future without the active participation of its citizens. This is a fundamental step towards a true economical, political and social development. We need to decentralize power in favour of local institutions.
Cuba needs a culture of debate based on respect for those who disagree and a complete rejection of the false consensus that has caused us so much harm.
Cuba is a country that sometimes appears to go forward but also, so many times, seems frozen in time. A generation of young Cubans has to negotiate their way between reminiscences of the past, calls for a “change of mentality” in Cuba’s society, economic advances and setbacks and a lot of scepticism.
Some of them stay, but each day some of them some of them leave the country. This could be the biggest choice of all.
Raudiel Peña Barrios is a Cuban lawyer.
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