Friday, July 27, 2007

Raul takes the stage

Politics later. Let’s start with a joke.

“I came by land to see that everything is green and beautiful, but the most beautiful thing, that which most caught my eye, was how pretty the marabu is all along the highway.”

That’s Raul Castro explaining that he drove hundreds of miles rather than fly to Camaguey, where he spoke on Cuba’s national holiday, on the one-year anniversary of Fidel Castro’s last public appearance.

Marabu is a weed that takes over untilled fields. I don’t know exactly how he meant this joke, which certainly differs from Fidel’s style, and which EFE’s correspondent reported was greeted by laughter throughout the crowd. But my guess is that it’s a muy popular way of expressing dissatisfaction with the state of agriculture because, as any Cuban farmer knows, marabu in your fields is a sign of idleness and failure. Or maybe he was alluding to “Plan Marabu,” a term Cubans jokingly use to refer to the sugar ministry’s so-far-unsuccessful plan to turn idled lands over to other crop production. Marabu thrives unchallenged in lots of former sugar fields right now.

Anyway, now to the politics.

I have to think this speech marks a turning point for Cubans, sort of as if Americans were to see a Vice President giving the State of the Union address after a President was ill and out of sight for many months.

Raul gave a serious, presidential address, not a quick 15 minutes that an interim leader would deliver if he were still concerned about appearing to move too boldly into the absent leader’s space. Fidel’s name was invoked aplenty, and a book of his “Reflections” was published in Camaguey. For all the reverence, I saw not a word that would create an expectation of Fidel’s return.

Yet Fidel’s presence seems unmistakable, and not simply in the sense Raul described of his brother never failing “to bring his wisdom and experience to each problem and essential decision,” even “during the most serious moments of his illness.”

It was apparent in the gap between the problems Raul Castro described and the measures that have so far been brought to bear to address them. Fidel may be phoning it in, but his philosophy still seems to reign.

A Cuban worker’s salary, Raul said, “is clearly insufficient to satisfy all necessities, and hence has practically stopped fulfilling the role of assuring the socialist principle of each working according to his capacity and receiving according to his work.” That failure brings “social indiscipline” – read petty theft and black market activity to make ends meet – that is “difficult to eradicate.” “We know the tension to which party cadres are subjected, especially at the base, where available resources are almost never enough to cover accumulated needs.”

The solution, he said, lies in higher productivity, revived industrial production, increased foreign investment, and even “structural changes and changes of concepts.” And the solution will not come immediately because “no country has the luxury of spending more than it has.”

When Fidel Castro spoke about Cuba’s expansive black market in 2005, describing it as a threat to socialism’s long-term survival, his prescription was clear: stamp it out by enforcing the law and raising ideological consciousness. By contrast, Raul says black market activity is a direct response to the state’s inadequate pay. There’s a big difference between blaming greed or insufficient revolutionary qualities, and saying people deserve a day’s pay for a day’s work.

And there was more, including a passage where Raul fairly ridiculed the bureaucracy of milk production. “For years we have said that milk is supplied to children up to age seven,” he said. “What must be done is to produce milk so that anyone who wants can drink a glass of milk.” How many speeches are there – thousands? – where Cuba’s guarantee of milk to children is described as a triumph. Raul held it up as a sign of inadequacy.

In the past year Raul has certainly set a different style and he has changed some government policies. A brief but vibrant debate erupted in the cultural sector about repression in the 1970’s. He saw to it that the government paid its debts to farmers, and he raised prices paid to producers for milk and beef. He promised investment in tourism facilities and cut some abusive pricing that was contributing to reduced tourist visits. He allowed video equipment and auto parts and engines to be imported, and reportedly Cuban customs has reduced taxation and confiscation of Cuban Americans’ luggage containing goods for family members. He approved new labor regulations requiring greater worker discipline, and set in motion a study of the salary structure to find a way to pay workers enough to cover basic needs. There’s a rumor that Cubans may be permitted to stay in tourist hotels, and there was this sentence in a New York Times report which, if true, would be a small but very dramatic sign of a change in direction: “He has told the police to let pirate taxis operate without interference.” (Fidel threatened to put them out of business because they guzzle gas.)

These moves all make sense and many will improve public welfare. But they are small, marginal steps in relation to what would need to be done for Cuba to bridge decisively the income gap between underpaid state workers and those who work in tourism, joint ventures with foreign investors, individual licensed entrepreneurship, private farming, and a few other lines of work.

So Raul described large problems that are of great interest to average Cubans. His actions during the past year give the impression of a policymaker with limited room for maneuver. Nonetheless, he is creating public expectations that some kind of change is coming, and that in time it will measure up to the challenges he himself has defined.

He closed by quoting his brother, seven years ago: “Revolution is a sense of the historical moment, it is to change all that must be changed.”

Chew that one over.

Finally, a word about the United States since we are, of course, the center of the universe.

Alas, we were not at the center of this speech. In spite of the amount of press coverage Raul’s comments on U.S. relations with the United States received, those comments seemed perfunctory to me, a genuine but pro forma reiteration of policy, with a shot at the “erratic and dangerous” President Bush.

Raul offered an “olive branch” – but to the next Administration, which takes office in 18 months.

He has written off the Bush Administration.

The man has work to do, after all.

[AP photo]


leftside said...

I am with you until the piece falls back on the (easy) claim that Raul needs to make more drastic market-oriented reforms in order to bridge the income gap. Market reforms may result a lot of things, but not a narrower income gap.

Recent history has shown that economic transition can be disruptive, particularly to the poor and elderly. Even the most classical economists will tell you GDP growth should be the #1 objective, along with employment - things Cuba is doing very well. Cuba's economic inequality is minor compared to the region.

Raul does seem committed to being more permissive in minor infractions. That does not mean large scale profiteers will be tolerated. The Cuban State can not tolerate the institutionalized sale of goods and services stolen from the Cuban state. Permitting open private retail businesses would mean more things in shops, but would the 'la base' be able to buy?

What continues to be the most important barrier to Cubans living better, and within reach right here in the US, is the US embargo. Sometimes we lose sight of that.

Anonymous said...

Marabu is a thorny bush; as a teenager, I cleared fields of it. The plant grows fast, and it's pretty invasive.That was during my high school years back in Cuba. It was of course a snide remark. Raul is playing by the old Soviet book, pointing the "faults" of old, not promissing anything, but vaguely suggesting reforms. It does not mean that he will do anything. All he will do is to leave the opuation with less, to increase the budget earmarked for repression.The prodialogue part of the speech surfaces every year in the official dicourse.

Anonymous said...

Lefside should move to Cuba for a while to enjoy freedom, equality, progress, less migration, better education, health services and all the goodies. A "comunist-paradise" according to his views, very far from the true situation of the island.
The embargo.... just an excuse the regimen manipulates.

Phil Peters said...

Lefty, for lack of a better word, the income gap already exists, the stores where people can't afford to shop already exist. And I don't think the Cuban leadership's point of reference (or the people's, for that matter) is the rest of Latin America but rather their own pre-1991 economy where these inequalities didn't exist. If you care about buying enough shoes, meat, and cooking oil, or if you have higher concerns about macroeconomics and socialist ethics, it's a problem either way.

I don't think Raul Castro is about to rush into anything, and given that he reiterates the importance of the "predominance" of socialist property I don't foresee a radical opening to markets and capitalism. But I can well imagine a lighter state hand in certain areas, because that would help have-nots to lift themselves up, not to mention generate more production. Of course you're right, growth is needed, especially if they are to get around to ending the dual currency system.

Charlie, we'll see whether and how he delivers. Your point about the custom of pointing out "faults" and expressing empathy is well taken, but I think this is different than the special period talks about how we all have to get through this together because there's no other choice. A good part of his message is that the system needs fixing.

Raul would be a very unusual politician if he raises expectations this high and then does nothing.

Anonymous said...

Phil, Raul has a history of being the one used to point out the "faults" of the system, and of being the one designated by his brother to do the "fixing". Sometimes, the fixes would prove worse than the fault, some times it would relieve some pressure, but temporarily only. Sometimes, big brother fidel would come around and said "raul, it ain't broken, don't fix it!".
It's all part of the communist liturgy.
Now, the old guard is talking about reforms and changes. For slight that they might be, we need to see what's really underlying here as a subtext. It's obvious that if castro were to return to power they would not dare to do this.
All of them, Ramiro Valdes, Guillermo Garcia, and Juan Almeida have been sent out to retirement (and eventually brought back from it) for expressing slight disagreement on the past.
raul castro is just saying one thing: the military will control the economy, and y'all will fend for yourselves, we will pay more, if we feel like it, but no freedoms whatsoever are to be granted.
According to my sources in the island, parts of the speech "leaked" beforehand. This is a new practice, not even done by Soviets. In that sense, raul is an innovator.
Repression is not going to subside, though.

Anonymous said...

Oh I forgot to add this:
Please notice how the fault of the failure of the system (no milk, bad agriculture) is the carried by the Cuban worker (no productivity, no social discipline, etc) while the system and its leaders are not to be blamed for having rendered the country into an inoperative entity.

Vana said...

Well put Charlie, but am hoping that with fifo out of the way things improve even if it's only a little, our brethen in the Island surely need a break, it's got to start somewhere, you know me always hoping

Tomás Estrada-Palma said...

Excellent piece!

Raul admitted Cuba is diving into the red ink fast. If he is actually doing the policy changes you wrote about it is a too small, too late last gasp maneuver that will surely not add to his reign. A few more cleaver people will get wealthy but most will remain poor under communist economic direction and payroll. The more stark the gap between these new have's and the masses of have not's, the more likely for open revolt.

Phil Peters said...

Charlie, I don't dispute what you say about the past, far from it.

And when it comes to all these hints, I'm with you -- I'll believe it when I see it.

But consider this regarding agriculture.

Where does the marabu grow?

Do you think there's a single campesino privado on his long car ride to Camaguey that has it in his field? How much you wanna bet that the marabu is 99% on state lands, UBPC's, the sugar ministry's lands that are supposed to be full of vegetables by now -- and that every single guajiro who heard him knows it?

Raul said it's time to "generalizar con la mayor celeridad posible" the things that work in agriculture now on both the state and private side, and to "estimular convenientemente la dura labor" which means paying more money.

By all means let's wait and see, but which experiences do you think he is going to "generalizar?" Those of the marabu producers, or the privados who deliver 2/3 of the product to the farmers markets every day of the week?

Great to have you here, and thanks for the clarification about the plant itself.

Anonymous said...

The marabu grows in abandoned lands.
Of course, a small farmer will never allow the marabu to grow. Instead, the "state farmer" or government owned farm will set up brigades, production plans, meetings, pay a few honchos to be the heads of the "contingent" or the leader of a "brigade" and nothing will be ever accomplished, because the land's not theirs. They won't use the family workforce, they will use prisoners, soldiers who are purging some time in a military punishment unit, or... volunteers! most of them non very interested in breaking their backs working.
He was just taking a jab at the ministers of Agriculture and Sugar Industry who will be fired shortly thereafter. Just putting the blame on the workers and some party honchos who are to be discarded at any time. Typical. Then those guy's are fired, and two generals are given the ministries.... Cuba has -thanks to raul- the largest military operated minister cabinet in the world, but almost everybody fails to describe that form of government as a military junta or a military dictatorship.

Anonymous said...

Just a clarification “la base” doesn’t mean average Cubans.
From the originals:
“Respecto a nuestras tareas económicas y sociales, sabemos las tensiones a que están sometidos los cuadros, especialmente en la base, donde casi nunca da la cuenta entre las necesidades acumuladas y los recursos disponibles.”
“With respect to the economic and social tasks ahead of us, we know the tensions that Party cadres are subjected to, especially at the base, where there's hardly ever a balance between accumulated needs and available resources.”
He is referring to tensions within the Communist Party, the cadres at the base of the pyramid of command. It might sound similar but it is not the same. Expressions like “base de cuadros” “cuadros en la base”, mean First Secretaries of the Party at the Municipalities (primeros secretarios municipales), Presidents of Muncipal Popular Assemblies, etc.

Anonymous said...

Right on, CubanoEnLasVegas.
The average citizen is referred to as "las masas".

Phil Peters said...

Thanks, correction made.

leftside said...

Until there are policy options on the table, we are really talking theoretical here. But my point was that is that nearly any market-oriented reform may indeed lead to a lot of things (perhaps more efficiency or even less Marabu), but not less income inequality. That simply is a fact that even pro-market economists condede. We have seen it play out pretty consistently in Eastern Europe (except Belarus) and Latin America.

In the agricultural sectors, private farms have made food more available and many farmers are making better money. But many folks I spoke with in Cuba could not afford most products in the markets. They still relied on state supplied sources. Any move to increase private yields runs up into this reality that the State needs to meet its ration guarantees.

I looked over Lexington's own agricultural "policy options" - and they are modest. Perhaps I read too much into your initial comments. I think I was reacting more to the standard media play that only market reforms can save Cuba.

Sure, change in many sectors are needed. Much has been done, but things are nowhere near perfect. But I firmly believe the vast majority of Cubans - and myself - want to preserve the fairness, dignity and solidarity the socialist system engenders. It is a beacon of justice in a supremely unjust world. To chase the Chinese model would just make a mockery of everything the Revolution stands for.

leftside said...

The real news from this speech is not big changes afoot, it is that we have our best indication yet that Fidel may not return to his official powers. The media does not seem to know how to take this.

On one hand they say Fidel must be too sick to resume powers (something I find increasingly unlikely). On the other, they blame Fidel for single-handedly blocking the reforms Raul supposedly is pining for.

I have to ask, after this speech, does our host still think Fidel would come back to power if he was physically able? We know he can walk and talk. We know he can write and think. We know the country does not require his contant 3 hour long speeches. So is it at plausible that Fidel has done the thing that NO ONE in Florida could have thought possible - retired??

Sorry, but I was struck that you would not even consider it a possibility last time I asked.