New York Review of Books
Havana: The State Retreats
May 26, 2011
José Manuel Prieto, translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
When I picked up my ticket for the only nonstop New York–Havana flight, I was given a list of the goods I could take: ten kilos of medicine and up to twenty kilos of food, duty free. While it’s true that Cuba suffers from the US embargo, it’s also the US and its Cuban exile community that keep the country afloat. The day of the flight, many of my fellow passengers were loaded down with heavy bundles of food and medicine, plasma TV sets in their original packaging, audio equipment, and domestic appliances. In 2010, 324,000 visitors arrived in Cuba on direct flights from the United States like this one, and several economists calculate that remittances to Cuba from the US total more than a billion dollars annually, about 35 percent of the country’s annual foreign exchange inflow.
All that help still isn’t enough. After landing at José Martí International Airport, I find the city in a virtual state of blackout, the celebrated corner of 23rd and L, Havana’s Times Square, empty at 10 PM. It’s as if a catastrophe has struck. There is a constant, ominous feeling of abandonment and crisis. My impression doesn’t much differ from the diagnosis delivered on December 18—days after my arrival—to the Cuban Parliament by the country’s current leader, Raúl Castro: “Either we rectify our course or the time for teetering along on the brink runs out and we go down. And we will go down…[with] the effort of entire generations.”
Certainly the signs of this deep crisis have been in the air for at least twenty years. What’s clear now is that it’s not enough to go on blaming the American bloqueo or the fall of the Soviet Union. Something is wrong with the system itself. This could be glimpsed in the startling comment made by Fidel Castro to the US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg and the Latin American scholar Julia Sweig last August: “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”
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What model is he talking about? The Soviet model of forced nationalization. The Cuban Revolution was among other things a cure for the chronic weakness of the Cuban state prior to 1959. The new, postrevolutionary state would take upon itself all that previous governments of Cuba had done so badly. The example of the Soviet Union, with triumphs such as the 1957 launch of Sputnik, seemed to indicate that this was a promising way forward, and it had the added appeal to Cuba’s unelected rulers of calling for government by a single party, virtually without opposition, and the pulverization of civil society.
Now, on my first visit to Cuba in ten years, I had the chance to observe the first signs of the inverse process: the dismantling of this gigantic state, visibly in retreat. I saw the detritus left behind: the disaster of a dysfunctional economy and a deep financial crisis aggravated by a dual currency system. All amid the growing discontent of the population and surging dissidence.
In Havana I buy every bit of printed news on sale at the kiosk near the casa particular where I’m renting a room. Such an unusual interest in publications almost no one reads immediately gives me away as a visitor from abroad. I ask for the recently released official publication “Proyecto de Lineamientos de la Política Económica y Social” (“Draft Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy”), but it’s sold out, the elderly vendor informs me: “All Havana is reading it.” In the end, I buy it secondhand, for ten times the original price, from a passerby who has overheard the conversation.
It’s a twenty-nine-page pamphlet whose 291 points set forth the coming “update” of the Cuban model. These points, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma affirms, were distilled from the vast consulta, or survey, Raúl Castro declared would take place on July 26, 2007, when “more than four million Cubans raised more than a million points.” By and large, the guidelines attempt to reduce the cumbersome size of the state to make it more compact and less costly.
The crux of the debate, I gather, after penetrating the technical jargon all Havana is reading and discussing as if it were a best-selling novel, is whether a new role can be assigned to the state: Can it be imagined more as referee than as star player while ensuring that it doesn’t lose control? There is of course no question that the governing party must remain in power and “safeguard the conquests of the revolution.”
I come to see that in fact the Party is trying to adjust to a transformation that began without much government participation, something the Cuban people started doing on their own. The government is like a general who mandates an “orderly retreat” when his army is being crushed. The “Guidelines” are for keeping up appearances.
Read the full story HERE.