The first sign that change is afoot is the number of Cubans loafing around in the bars of Havana’s hotels. Until a few years ago, the sight would have been unthinkable. Before 2008, Cuban nationals were forbidden from entering such places, unless they were waiting on or cleaning up after pasty-faced capitalists visiting on holiday from overseas.
This is just one of a number of restrictions lifted by the Cuban president, Raúl Castro, since he took over from his ailing brother Fidel seven years ago. Cubans are now permitted to travel abroad, buy and sell houses and set up small businesses. In what many observers have interpreted as a move in the direction of the Sino-Vietnamese model of state capitalism, the government is aiming to have 40 per cent of the workforce employed by the non-state sector by 2016. In 2010, 85 per cent of Cubans worked for the government.
The changes are intended to give a much-needed shot of adrenalin to the country’s ailing economy, which has been on life support since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the generous subsidies it lavished on Havana dried up. When Raúl Castro took office in 2008, Cuba’s economy had a trade deficit of roughly £5bn. According to US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2009, the Cuban economy was believed to be three years away from collapse. The gradual implosion of the Chávez (later Maduro) government in Venezuela, which supplies Cuba with 200,000 barrels of cheap oil every day, has undoubtedly driven home the need for reform.
As for what comes next, only the top tier of the Communist Party can tell, though there do not appear to be plans for a Cuban glasnost (“openness”) to accompany the country’s economic perestroika (“restructuring”). According to Rogelio Manuel Díaz Moreno, a writer for the Havana Times whom I met at the Café Neruda by the Malecón sea wall, the aim of Castro’s reforms is to transition to “enlightened despotism”.
“There are committees working on the reforms under the slogan ‘Draft Guidelines for Economic and Social Policy’ but everything is done in total secrecy,” he told me.
Across the water in the US, President Barack Obama, who came to office in 2009 pledging to end the economic embargo on Cuba, appears to have invested heavily in the country’s transformation. Though the jury is still out on whether he will be able to persuade Congress to drop the embargo outright, a tentative rapprochement is under way. Last December, Obama announced that he would lift a number of restrictions for American citizens on travel and sending remittances to Cuba. Over the summer, the two countries have reopened their respective embassies, institutions closed during the cold war. Pro-market reforms in Havana have undoubtedly made it easier for Obama, with the US business community coming round to the idea that the fall of the Castro regime may not be a precondition to doing deals on the island.
Despite press conferences and calls from the European tourism industry to visit Cuba “before it changes”, life in Havana goes on pretty much as before. “For ordinary people, state employees and the majority of the dispossessed, things are the same, especially in the interior and the east,” said Pedro Campos Santos, a retired diplomat who leads a group of Marxists critical of the government. Strolling through the streets of Havana, dodging the many potholes, I asked him if the island had become freer since Raúl Castro took charge. “From conversations and from what I have read – since I live in Havana – repression inside the country has not diminished. The overall look is simply more sophisticated,” he said.
There are signs that a new petite bourgeoisie is emerging in the capital. Yet with shortages of basic goods and pitiful salaries continuing, “No es fácil” (“It’s not so easy”) is a common response. One of the boasts of the revolution was that it had eliminated prostitution, yet in Havana’s nightclubs and bars, visitors will often come across elderly Europeans sipping mojitos alongside Cubans who look no older than 16, and many of whom are black.
If Castro’s economic reforms can put more money into the pockets of ordinary Cubans they ought to be welcomed, regardless of one’s ideological position. Yet it would be naive to assume that a flowering of democracy will inevitably follow the tentative economic liberalisation. “Members of the political opposition still report occasional arrests and the irregular beating of political dissidents,” Moreno told me, “though it’s true we no longer see as many imprisonments as in previous decades.”
This article appears in the 26 Aug 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism