Changes in Cuba?

May 10, 2008

The Western press has been untiring with respect to the changes happening in Cuba after Raul Castro's election as president of the Republic and have celebrated a possible liberalisation 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 that were valid until recently had rational explanations, but the information multinationals have ignored them.

In reality, an intense debate was launched at the beginning of the year with the objective of improving 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 that 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 that began in 1991, after the disintegration of the Cuba's main trading partners in the Soviet bloc, Cuba remained alone against the international market and had to face the disappearance of more than 80% of its foreign trade. Additionally, Cuba faced the worsening of the relentless economic aggression by the US.

In this extremely difficult context, the Caribbean island was hit by shortages — especially of energy, causing long blackouts. In this period, authorities limited the sale of energy-hogging electric devices.

Those restrictions were not only justified, it would have been irresponsible to proceed any other way since the subsidised energy system could have collapsed.

Thanks to Cuban ingenuity, efforts supported by the population and new commercial relations with countries like Venezuela and China, Cuba has a stronger economy at its disposal and has managed to solve its energy problem. Thanks to the "energy revolution" launched in 2006, which consisted of replacing light bulbs and old electric appliances such as televisions, refrigerators and fans, 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.

The achieved energy savings allows for meeting the population's demand, which explains the progressive elimination of restrictions regarding the acquisition of new electric appliances.

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 this in its coverage.

Global context

The media rushed to emphasise 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.

This is also the reality for 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 Organization (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 Peru.

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 any 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 inevitably leads to comparisons.

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, the authorities never apply it. In Cuba, the citizens would never accept a similar scandal.

In France, according to the housing ministry, 1.6 million people live in housing without a shower or bathroom. More than 1 million French citizens 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 live in the street.

Nevertheless, close to 2 million dwellings are empty in France, of them 136,554 in Paris.

With cell phones, Cuba's second obstacle was technology (it is still the case for internet access since Washington prevents Cuba from connecting to the fiber optic cable in the Straits of Florida). Cuba has at its disposal a limited satellite connection that, in addition, is extremely expensive.

This 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 remain 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.

Regarding hotels, the media also showed their bias. Until April 1, access to luxury hotels was not prohibited, as the western press claimed, but limited. Here, the explanation is social and economic.

In the 1990s, the resurgence of a phenomenon that 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 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, 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, for economic reasons. 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 its coverage at the relatively prohibitive tariffs for the average Cuban. According to the April 1 Associated Press, there are very few Cuban who can pay for a room that costs US$173 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 live in developed countries. As a matter of comparison, how many French people, for example, can pay for a room costing 730 Euros (the cheapest) at the Ritz (five stars) in Paris?

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 that 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 has found itself in constant evolution since that date. In Cuba, 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 top leaders to promote debate. Raul Castro's own daughter, Mariela Castro, a sexologist who defends the rights of gay and lesbian minorities, has defended "socialism but with less prohibitions".

But the media pretends not to see this reality. Contrary to what they expect and hope for — 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 an author and journalist specialising in Cuba-United States relations. This article is abridged from his ZSpace page at on April 30.]

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