Cuba: If change is in the air, does prosperity lie ahead?

Havana-new-Chinese-buses-031308-by-Claudia-Daut-Reuters, Cuba: If change is in the air, does prosperity lie ahead?, Archives 1976-2008 World News & Views
With sleek new buses from China and other signs of a burgeoning economy, Cubans are enjoying relative prosperity despite the U.S. government’s best efforts to choke off commerce.
Photo – Claudia Daut, Reuters

by Jean Damu

Guanabo – While aging anti-Castroistas in Florida and New Jersey continue to terrorize gullible U.S. politicians into supporting their quixotic dreams of returning Cuba to the ranks of U.S. gangster economics, this island nation has defied all rational odds against its socialist survival. 

Today while it not only remains the planet’s inspirational outpost of humanitarianism and social justice, in fact Cuba appears to be thriving. 

How is it possible? Just a decade and half ago Cuba faced economic ruin as 30 percent of its economy vanished overnight with the dismantlement of the Soviet Union. People were hungry and it was not unusual to have to wait all night for a bus to get home.

Unbelievably, today it’s actually easier to get fresh fruits and vegetables in the various municipalities of Havana than it is in many neighborhoods of America’s largest cities. Here vegetables and fruits straight from the ground and the trees are available at prices most Cubans can afford.

Sleek new buses maintain regular routes, the vintage U.S. cars, for which Cuba has long been famous, while not extinct, are becoming rare, the stores are well stocked and the people are generally well dressed. Life definitely seems to be on the upswing here and change seems evident everywhere.

Relaxing in the shade of a private home in this seaside resort village, just 25 kilometers east of Havana, a foreigner who has seen Cuba in the best of times and worst of times can be forgiven for concluding that Cuba’s new found prosperity is based on three things: China, Venezuela and tourism.

And while China, Venezuela and tourism have impacted Cuba with many much needed benefits, including oil, buses and tourist industry jobs, it would be selling Cubans and their socialist vision short to say that others are primarily responsible for their recent successes.

The truth of the matter is that as early as 1996 the Cuban economy began to grow at the very healthy rate of 8 percent per year. During that period, euphemistically referred to as the “special period,” Cuba began to radically diversify its economy by recruiting foreign investment and turning toward tourism as a source of badly needed currency.

More recently, in 2006 specifically, with the emergence of Venezuela and China as major players in the global market place, Cuba’s foreign exchange earnings jumped by 30 percent thanks largely to income derived from the export of medical services to Venezuela and several Caribbean islands.

Cuba used a portion of its foreign earnings to purchase 7,000 buses from China’s Yutong Corp. It is these new Chinese buses that now ply the streets of many of Cuba’s cities and have made the old tractor driven camellos, the old tanker looking buses that resembled camels, onto which several hundred people at a time would jam themselves, invisible throughout major portions of the island. 

Plans to refurbish the Cuban railway with Chinese rail cars and locomotives, built especially for Cuba, apparently still has not happened as Cubans openly disparage the rail system. But other changes, some more deep-seated but less visible, are now becoming apparent.

For instance, the supposed crisis of leadership that most of the world assumed existed when it was announced Fidel Castro, due to his diagnosis of cancer, would temporarily step down as head of state, it turns out was never a crisis at all.

The national media in the U.S., taking its cue from the Bush-occupied White House, ground out stories designed to embolden the anti-Castro communities, telling the world that either the Cuban people would rise up in the wake of the rudderless Cuban ship of state and re-impose democracy (read capitalism), or alternatively the people would be distraught with grief at the impending demise of their great leader and social turmoil would result.

Neither scenario was anywhere close to accurate.

Cubans interviewed in the street on their way to work after it was announced Fidel was seriously ill with just limited chances of survival took time out to chastise the Cuban leader for working too hard and not taking better care of himself.

In fact the Cuban people’s confidence in the Cuban system, with or without Fidel, was reinforced during the general elections held earlier this year. In a move that took no one by surprise, the ailing Castro announced he would not run for re-election. 

And neither was anyone surprised that Raul, Fidel’s 76-year-old brother, was elected to replace the elder Castro as president of the Council of State. What was somewhat surprising were indications of the ever increasing role of Blacks and women in the Cuban political process. 

In the wake of the January elections, 35 percent of the National Assembly members are Black, up from 33 percent in 2003 and 28 percent in 1998. Forty-three percent of the National Assembly members are women, making Cuba one of the worlds’ leaders in the percentage of women in representative government. The U.S. Congress is made up of just 16.8 percent women, by comparison.

Despite all these positive indicators, it would be a mistake to give the impression life is easy in Cuba. It is not and it never has been.

So questions remain. Especially, how will the younger post-revolution generation respond to the challenges confronted by Cuba in her constant struggles with her great imperialist neighbor to the North? Indications are the youth may not be so patient.

In what is now a famous incident in Cuba, in February, a student at the University of Computer Science, Eliecir Avila, stood at a microphone in a meeting with National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon and asked pointed questions about the Cuban economy. 

He asked could Cubans expect to be allowed certain rights and privileges citizens of other countries took for granted. All his questions were good questions – questions many Cubans, not just the youths, were asking themselves.

What was equally interesting about the Alarcon-Avila exchange was that an enterprising computer science student recorded the question-answer exchange on a cell phone video, downloaded it to a computer and put it on the Internet. It thus became an item of island-wide, even international discussion. 

While it was reported in some quarters of the U.S. that Avila was later arrested by Cuban authorities, the truth is that he was taken to Havana, put on a television roundtable forum and the discussion on Cuban economics and conditions of life continued.

Some answers to the students’ questions were not long in coming. Late in April, the Council of State, the elected representative body of the National Assembly that carries out policy between sessions of the Assembly, announced new economic and social reforms that would allow Cubans access to services and consumer products heretofore denied them. 

It was an impressive, if token response to Cuban’s desires to “look like everyone else.” It was a token response because allowing Cuban access to tourist hotels and lifting restrictions on the sale of cell phones, microwave ovens, dvd players – items that were formerly restricted to conserve energy – is only meaningful if people have the economic capacity to purchase such things. Most still do not. 

But the willingness of the Cuban government to listen to the people and to respond in some measure is a clear signal Cubans think Cuba is well on the road to recovery.

Of course, given the free market nature of the global economic system that exists now, likely Cuba will never return to the days when the socialist world gave fair and equal sustenance to the Cuban economy. But change is in the air and you have to like Cuba’s chances of flourishing once again.

Jean Damu is the former western regional representative for N’COBRA, National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America and a former member of the International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, taught Black Studies at the University of New Mexico, has traveled and written extensively in Cuba and Africa and currently serves as a member of the Steering Committee of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Email him at