The State of Cuba
The State of Cuba
Text by Azam Ahmed and Victoria Burnett.
SEPT. 18, 2015
Battered Chevys still course up and down the broad avenues, and photos of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara still paper the city like campaign posters. But you can also try the sumptuous seafood risotto at a high-end paladar, or watch a concert in one of the new venues that feel like a revamped industrial loft. Cuba’s inconsistencies are especially apparent now that relations with the United States have been restored after more than a half a century of hostility. Change is fighting with tradition. The public’s desire for openness is being met with the government’s resistance to letting go. Alongside the upscale bars where young Cubans spend small fortunes on imported whiskey are homes that have not received a fresh coat of paint in 50 years. Contradiction is more than just a sign of a changing Cuba — it is a fundamental characteristic of it.
Tourism is central to Cuba’s future, as a driver of both income and change. Americans represented the largest increase in visitors this year, eager to get a peek at a country their government has been at odds with for decades. But Cubans are conflicted about the increase, fearful that a flood of outsiders might transform their island from a tiny nation with an outsize voice in global affairs into just another Caribbean destination.
Some economists doubt Cuba’s economic figures, but they display the same push-and-pull as the rest of the nation. Spending to repair hotels, restaurants and commercial property ranked among the fastest growing sectors of the economy in the past nine years, suggesting a more entrepreneurial Cuba. But some of the stalwarts of the communist system, like public health and social assistance, also grew quickly. Beyond tourism, experts say the future of Cuba’s economy will depend on the private sector breaking free of government control.
Private Sector Growth
The number of Cubans working in the private sector has more than tripled since 2008, to nearly half a million last year. And yet the heavy hand of the state remains a constant presence for would-be entrepreneurs, who have difficulty buying supplies and face onerous taxes. After increasing sharply from 2010 to 2011, the growth in registered private sector workers has slowed. Much of the real private sector activity remains under the radar, and some estimates say that up to one million Cubans, including government employees, are working off-the-books in the private sector.
Trade With the United States
Despite the United States trade embargo, not all trade with Cuba is off limits. Since 2001, the United States has exported some goods to Cuba, like frozen chicken, soybeans and corn, reaching more than $700 million in 2008. But exports have tapered off, most drastically this year, just when relations between the two nations began to warm. Part of the decline can be traced to Cuba’s cash crunch, but the drop may also be strategic: By buying less from American agricultural states, Cuba can apply pressure on American legislators from those states to lift the embargo.
Official statistics say that two-thirds of Cubans are white, and that one in ten is black. That is a surprising assertion in a place that brought in more slaves from West Africa than almost any island in the Caribbean. And it says a lot about the perceptions and realities of race on the island – an issue growing more urgent as the economic disparity between whites and Afro-Cubans grows. The gap is expanding because Afro-Cubans are less likely to receive remittances from relatives, particularly in the United States, to start a business or to live in a nice house that they can rent to tourists.
Repression in Cuba has many guises. People whose criticism crosses an invisible line may lose their job, find that their child cannot attend college, or may be barred from performing in state-owned venues. Human Rights Watch says that it is “virtually impossible” to know the number of political prisoners because Cuba’s justice system is so opaque. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation in August put the number of political prisoners at 70, but that number includes Cubans who have tried to hijack planes or steal boats to escape the island. What is clear is that dissidents continue to be harassed and detained for short periods: 4,264 people were held in the first eight months of 2015, significantly fewer than in the same period of 2014, when arrests peaked, but roughly in line with recent years.
Cuba is a developing country with a first-world problem: long life expectancy and chronically low birth rates. The result is a steeply aging population on an island where youths are restless and the state is economically strapped. A severe lack of housing forces families to sleep many to a room, discouraging some from having children. Until two years ago, a law barred children from being taken out of the country, so some Cubans remained in the country to avoid leaving children behind. Retirees scrape by on $13 a month. The government estimates that by 2030 there will be one million Cubans over the age 75.
Worried that the détente with the United States will mean the end of their preferential treatment under American immigration rules, many Cubans are rushing for a door that they fear will soon close. According to data from United States Customs and Border Protection, more than 31,000 migrants crossed the United States southern border, which includes the Mexican frontier and the Florida coast, between October 2014 and July 2015 — 40 percent more than during the whole of the previous fiscal year. Thousands more tried to make the journey in fragile boats. Even with new opportunities in the private sector, many young Cubans are more likely to spend their days figuring out ways to leave than dreaming up ideas for new businesses. About 450,000 Cubans have obtained residency in the United States since 2000.
Migration within Cuba offers a look into the regional disparities that are deepening as the private sector evolves. The populations of several western provinces, including Havana, have each grown in recent years, while those of eastern provinces, including Santiago de Cuba, where Pope Francis will offer Mass, have declined. The full extent of this internal migration may be even bigger than officially recognized, experts say. Cubans need permission to move to another province, so many who move on their own never register.
Source: The State of Cuba – The New York Times – http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/09/18/world/americas/cuba-state.html
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