September 23, 2010
Forget Costa Rica. Forget the Bahamas. Forget Mexico for sure. It's Cuba we're all longing to see. The land of Cugat and Arnaz, of Hemingway and the Buena Vista Social Club, of vintage cars and rollicking bars. Not to mention baseball.
Fidel's little admission recently made to a reporter from Atlantic magazine — and then quickly retracted — that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore" was soon followed by his brother Raúl's announcement that a whopping half a million people on the government payroll would be dismissed by next March, leaving them to find or create their own jobs in a loosened-up private sector. Equally whopping was his estimate that there are yet another half-million state employees who do virtually nothing and will also be released in time.
"We have to erase forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where you can live without working," President Raúl Castro wryly noted.
Talk about transparency. Such admissions, and such concrete proposals with hard numbers and even a fixed date, you seldom get from any leader, much less any "dictator." Something's happening on that island, and this is just the beginning.
Details of the plan are thus far sketchy — what the hell do you do with 500,000 newly unemployed? — but the outline released by the government last week gives a good hint of it: Some small state-run businesses like light manufacturing will be turned into private "cooperatives" owned and operated by their employees; this will absorb 200,000 workers. The remainder will be expected to find work on their own, mostly as small-scale entrepreneurs like taxi drivers, plumbers, farmers, and, as the document cited, wine-makers and massage therapists. The government apparently will not assist them in starting up these enterprises — no mention has been made of grants, small-business loans, tax breaks, job and management training, and the like.
Nobody outside the inner circle knows for sure what's coming next, but it does seem that the inner circle has a distinct vision for the future. Teams of Cuban economists have visited China and Vietnam; they are learning from the successes and disasters of other Communist countries' transitions to a freer market, and are determined to get things right from the start. Or so it seems.
What the Castro brothers fear the most is losing control of the process, something entirely understandable. I don't think they fear a revolution as much as a takeover by U.S. interests. They would welcome, of course, a relaxation of the trade embargo which has been strangling the country for decades — it's not just Communism that's made the Cuban economy the worst in the Western Hemisphere. But the last thing they want is to be colonized by their neighbor to the north — that's what prompted Fidel's own revolution in the first place.
If any country can make a peaceful transition to a mixed socialism, Cuba can. As the refugees and their descendants in the United States have amply demonstrated, Cubans are hardly lazy — they don't want to "live without working," they want to live in a society where work pays off. Those on the island have been chomping at the bit for an opportunity to make their country over, and in their own way.
They've been under U.S. interdict for so long that they already have a vision of self-sufficiency; their urban agricultural programs, for example, have been studied by American agronomists as models of "sustainability." What the Castro brothers seem to be saying is, with us or against us, we're going to prosper by ourselves.
By all indications, change in Cuba will not be violent but velvet. There will be no overthrow here. Most people in Cuba, I think, have a genuine affection for Fidel — he's not a despised dictator but a beloved father and liberator. If only the Castros can open up the country to private initiative while preserving the best elements of socialism — medical care, education, equitable distribution of wealth — they could turn Cuba into the Sweden of the Caribbean.
It's interesting that after that momentous announcement there was hardly a peep out of the State Department, and as far as I know, President Obama hasn't mentioned it at all. Perhaps they were taken by surprise and are pondering their next move. The best thing the U.S. can do at this point — and not only for Cuba, by the way — is to tear down that wall of trade.
These are exciting times. Maybe I'll be able to visit the Hemingway house and take in a ball game after all.