Thursday, October 21, 2010

Big in China

Soon after Cuba announced its most recent layoffs and economic reforms in the area of self-employment, El Yuma was inundated by calls from the media.

In the space of two weeks I spoke to The New York Times (twice), The Miami Herald, the AP Havana bureau, The Christian Science Monitor (twice), a Jamaican radio station, a reporter from the Dutch equivalent of AP (who is now in Cuba), and the Chinese magazine Life Week, whose reporter, Cloris, told me that it is the most widely circulated news magazine in Beijing.  Can anyone confirm or deny this?

So, exclusive to readers of El Yuma, here is the PDF of the article (en chino) that appeared yesterday on October 20, 2010 in Life Week, followed by the complete internet interview we did (en ingles).

Go here to practice your Chinese. (A special prize goes to anyone who can read the Chinese article and then tell me if I was quoted correctly based on the English transcript of the interview below.)

Read on for the text of our internet interview done from my trusty Blackberry while at the LASA conference in Toronto two weeks ago.  El mundo si es un panuelo.


Please confirm that you have received this message. Thank you for contacting me. I'm glad to share my thoughts on Cuba's new economic reforms with you. See below for my answers to your questions.

LW: Over the years, the government has reluctantly relinquished some jobs to the private sector.  In the 1990s, when faced for the first time with mounting unemployment, the government licensed some 200,000 workers to launch their own businesses.  What is Cuban government’s major guideline in this field?  What are the most important dynamics for the current decision of layoff of Cuban government?

El Yuma: During the 1990s the Cuban government under the leadership of Fidel Castro legalized and expanded self-employment in order to 'save socialism'.  Today in 2010, they are trying that again.  However, the national and international context is different today.

First of all, Cuba has a new, more pragmatic, if no less authoritarian leadership under Raul Castro.

Second, the 'Cuban model' of a highly statist form of socialism where nearly everyone is employed be the state and expects universal protections and subsidies is clearly exhausted and is no longer sustainable.

Third, while the reforms of the 1990s were only temporary measures designed to weather the storm caused in the Cuban economy by the collapse of the USSR, today it seems that the changes are aimed at making a more permanent change in the economic functioning of the Cuban socialist system.

In other words, its still socialism, but its going to be a different kind of socialism - a kind that not only legalizes but also legitimizes the small scale, micro-enterprise sector, a new kind of cooperative, and allows more freedom for farmers to produce food under market incentives and rewards.

LW: Lay off more than half a million state workers by March 2011 is a very ambitious target. How do the Cuban domestic public opinion towards the revolution? Will it threaten the stability of the country?

El Yuma: These changes could very well threaten the revolution's stability because they alter the social and economic compact between the individual and the state.  People in Cuba do not so much BELIEVE in the revolution as they have been made to be DEPENDENT on it.

Now that the state is saying that the people must expect LESS from the government and rely on their own work and resources will be good news for some, but very disconcerting and frightening for others not in a position to take advantage of the new economic freedoms.  Also, we do not know yet whether the new regulations and taxes on self-employment will be supportive and encouraging or overly focused on control, discipline, and distrust.

LW: Over the years, the government has reluctantly relinquished some jobs to the private sector. In the 1990s, when faced for the first time with mounting unemployment, the government licensed some 200,000 workers to launch their own businesses. But I heard that the real number of self-employed people is much higher than the officiel data. How?

El Yuma: Cuba has a huge underground economy and black market. Many people in state jobs today are there partly so they can have 'access' to goods to 'liberate' (steal) from their workplace and later resell on the black market.

Also the current regulations on the private sector are so rigid and severe and the official mentality so antagonistic toward the non-state entrepreneurial sector, that many, perhaps most entrepreneurs prefer to remian undeeground. They do not trust the government to act in good faith and it will take time to reconstruct that trust.

LW: Do you think Raul Castro brought something different to Cuba?

El Yuma: Raul is more pragmatic, less ideological. In other words, if Fidel was Cuba's Mao, Raul looks like he might be its Deng Chao-Ping!

LW: US Congressional committee postponed a vote on a measure that would abolish a decades-old ban on travel to Cuba, leaving little time this year for the proposal to advance in Congress. Who play the major roles in this debate?

El Yuma: The Cuban-Americans elected to Congress and the Senate are a big factor opposing any opening of travel or weakening of the embargo. However there are new voices and interest groups that favor an opening, including many agricultural interests who want to sell food to Cuba and others who think that if we want Cuba to change and liberalize we have to engage it and open up, not to continue to isolate it.

LW: A September 2009 survey by Bendixen & Associates found that 59 percent of Cuban-Americans favored repealing the travel ban for all Americans. Just 29 percent opposed the repeal. But on contrary, data show that since the 2004 election cycle the US-Cuba Democracy PAC raised over $2.7 million, and according to a Public Campaign report released in November 2009, more than $1.7 million of that money has gone to federal candidates. Overall, individuals and organizations that support the embargo have contributed close to $11 million dollars to 337 federal candidates since 2004. What is your analysis on those phenomena? How did the organizations such as US-Cuba Democracy influence US government’s decision-making on US-Cuban relation? Who is behind the scene?

El Yuma: The US electoral system relies on money and votes. Cuba is not an important issue for many members of Congress and they can be persuaded to continue to support the embargo and an isolationist policy with relatively small but strategic donations to their reelection campaigns.

Further changes in Cuba will make it more politically possible to change US policy. But the Obama administration needs to be bold and make it a greater priority. That does not seem very likely now given the anti-incumbent mood of the American electorate.

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