Changes in Cuba?

Summer 2008

Salim Lamrani, French journalist and professor provides an alternative to the western media’s reporting on recent changes in Cuba

The Western press has been untiring with respect to the changes happening in Cuba after Raúl Castro’s election as president of the Republic and celebrated a possible liberalization of the island’s economy.

But, as always when Cuba is talked about, this reality is treated superficially and erroneously. Whether it is about acquiring electric devices, hotels, or cell phones, the restrictions which were valid until recently had rational explanations, but the information multinationals have not touched upon them. In reality, an intense debate was launched at the beginning of 2008, shortly before Fidel Castro’s decision not to run for re-election, with the objective to improve Cuban socialism. This debate involved the entire population and generated 1.3 million proposals.

Electric devices

The media announced with great fanfare that Cubans were now free to acquire electric devices and household appliances, making it seem that before they were completely forbidden to be sold. However, the reality is clearly different. The sale of these items has never been prohibited in Cuba, aside from some computing and other products which consume large quantities of energy such as electric stoves or microwave ovens, in a period in which energy production in Cuba was insufficient to meet the population’s needs.

In fact, during the special period which began in 1991, after the disintegration of the Soviet block, Cuba remained alone against the international market and had to face the disappearance of more than 80% of its foreign trade and, additionally, the worsening of the relentless economic aggression by the United States. In this extremely difficult context, the Caribbean island was hit by great shortages, particularly with regards to energy, which caused long blackouts. In this period, authorities limited the sale of energy hogging electric devices. Those restrictions were completely justified. In fact, it would have been irresponsible to proceed in any other way since the tremendously subsidised energy system could have collapsed.

Thanks to the ingenuity of the Cubans, to the efforts supported by the population and new commercial relations with countries like Venezuela and China, Cuba has a stronger economy at its disposal and managed to solve its energy problem. Thanks to the “energy revolution” launched in 2006, which consisted of replacing light bulbs and old electric appliances like televisions, refrigerators, fans and other electric devices with more modern products that used less energy, millions of Cubans have benefited from an entire range of new electric appliances with prices subsidised by the State, in other words, less than the market price.

Now the achieved energy savings allows meeting the needs of the population’s demand, which explains the progressive elimination of restrictions regarding the acquisition of new electric appliances, computers, and others, like video players. This way, Cubans have access to a much larger selection of consumer goods. Therefore, the limitations were explained because of only one economic factor, which is a lack of energy production. The Western press has not bothered in tackling these elements in coverage of the subject.

The media rushed to emphasise, with good reason, that many Cubans would not have access to the articles on sale at market prices due to their high cost with respect to the current, relatively modest salaries in Cuba. Nonetheless, this reality concerns a large part of the world’s population, who live in poverty and whose main worries are not acquiring a DVD player or a microwave, but eating three times a day and having access to health and education, nonexistent concerns in Cuba.

According to the last report from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) on food insecurity in the world, 854 million people in the entire planet, including 9 million in industrial countries are malnourished. On the American continent only three countries have already reached the objectives of the 2015 World Food Summit: Cuba, Guyana and Perú. According to UNESCO, currently, one out of five adults are illiterate, in other words 774 million people and 74 million children lack schools. According to UNICEF, 26,000 children younger than five years old die from hunger or curable diseases every day, in other words 9.7 million every year. No Cuban makes up part of these lists.

The information multinationals always avoid bringing up Cuban reality with relation to Latin American and Third World problems since it is edifying and inevitable leads to comparisons.

Cell phones

Access to cell phones has also been increased in Cuba for several reasons. The first is economic and the second is technological. Cell phone access expanded throughout the western world in the 1990s.

During that period Cuba had other priorities than offering cell phone access to the population. The challenges then concerned food, transportation, and housing. The food problem currently is solved in Cuba. Referring to transportation, it is being solved, especially thanks to importing many Chinese buses. With regards to housing, it is undoubtedly, the main difficulty facing the population.

In this case nether is it specifically Cuban. The reality is the same in any city in the first world, such as Paris, with a difference: in Cuba the lack of housing is due to the US economic sanctions which impede the construction of 100,000 additional dwellings per year, while the Parisians have to confront an absurd aberration. In fact, more than 100,000 dwellings, property of the moneyed class are empty in Paris while 100,000 families are looking for a roof; in spite of the fact that a requisition law exists, that authorities never apply. In Cuba, the citizens would never accept a similar scandal.

In France, according to the Ministry of Housing, 1.6 million people live in housing without a shower or bathroom. More than a million French are accommodated in a “stressed, overcrowded situation,” 550,000 live in boarding houses, among then 50,000 children, 146,000 in trailers and 86,000 are “without a roof” and live in the street. Nevertheless, close to 2,000,000 dwellings are empty in France, of them 136,554 in Paris, Another aberration: only 32,000 dwellings in Paris pay taxes on the empty dwelling that more than 136,000 would have to pay. But the authorities prefer to close their eyes.

Returning to cell phones, the second obstacle was technology (it is still the case for Internet access since Washington prevents Cuba from connecting to the fibre optic cable in the Straits of Florida and to whom it belongs). Cuba has at its disposal a limited satellite connection that, in addition, is extremely expensive. It is the reason access to cell phones had been restricted. With improvement of the economic situation, the offer has been increased to the entire population, although prices continue being high. In this case also, although the cell phone is widely used in the West, it continues being a luxury for many habitants of the planet.

Hotel access

Regarding hotels, the media also showed their bias. Until April 1, 2008, access to luxury hotels were not prohibited, as the western press affirmed, but limited. Here, the explanation is social and economic. In the 1990s, the resurgence of a phenomenon which was eradicated when the Revolution triumphed in 1959 concerned authorities a lot: prostitution. In order to try to channel this problem which arose from the difficulties the Cubans faced, the Cuban government decided to limit access of the population to the tourist infrastructure. Thanks to the work of social workers and to improvement of the economy, this social phenomenon, if it has not yet disappeared, has been substantially reduced. The second explanation is the economy. In fact, with the dizzying development of tourism from the 1990s, the Cuban hotel capacity has developed insufficiently in order to accommodate foreigners and Cubans at the same time. Authorities welcomed foreigners, above all in high season, coming from an economic reasoning. A tourist, whose summer vacation demands were not satisfied, would spend their money outside the country, which would generate a significant business interruption for the country’s economy. On the other hand, the small category of Cubans who have the necessary resources to pay for a luxury hotel would spend their money on other sectors but this would remain in the country.

The Western press also stopped at the relatively prohibitive tariffs for the average Cuban. According to the Associated Press, there are very few Cuban who can pay for a room that costs £87 per night at the hotel “Ambos Mundos” (four stars) in Old Havana one of the most prestigious tourist establishments, which was preferred by Ernest Hemingway. It’s correct. But once again, it forgets to emphasise that access to a room at a renowned hotel is a luxury for all the habitants of the Third World and for a large category of citizens who liven in developed countries. As a matter of comparison, how many British, for example, can pay for a room costing £325 (the cheapest) at the Connaught (five stars) in London’s Mayfair?

Economic liberalisation?

Are these reforms perhaps leading towards certain liberalisation of the Cuban economy? It would be mistake to think that. It is necessary to remember that in the 1980s Cubans had abundant access to consumer goods. It is merely about the abolition of restrictions which no longer have any reason to exist. Others should quickly follow. In the same way, the government decided to rent idle land to small private producers with the goal of augmenting agricultural production, at the time in which prices of raw materials have reached their peak.

Real changes in Cuba occurred in 1959 and the island finds itself in constant evolution since that date. There criticism is constant and it’s enough to read the national press to be convinced about it, particularly the daily newspapers Juventud Rebelde and Trabajadores whose tone is increasingly incisive and without concessions. There is an undeniable political will among the high leaders, of promoting debate. Raul Castro’s own daughter Mariela Castro, a sexologist who defends the rights of gay and lesbian minorities, defended “socialism but with less prohibitions.” But the media pretends not to perceive this reality. Contrary to what they expect-and hope-the information multinationals, Washington and the European Union, Cubans will not return to a market economy, but will continue making an effort in the construction of a modern, more just, and more rational socialism.

Salim Lamrani is a French professor, writer and journalist specialising in Cuba-United States relations. He has published the following titles in French. Washington contre Cuba (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 2005), Cuba face à l’Empire (Genève: Timeli, 2006) and Fidel Castro, Cuba et les Etats-Unis (Pantin: Le Temps des Cerises, 2006). He has just published Double Morale: Cuba, l’Union européenne et les droits de l’homme (Paris: Editions Estrella, 2008).

This and other articles by the author can be read at:

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