Raul Castro's Three-Year Report Card

By Ernesto Hernandez Busto

Thursday will mark three years since Raul Castro’s election by the deputies of the Popular Power National Assembly as Cuba’s President of the Council of State. He succeeded his brother Fidel, who had resigned days earlier in an open letter. Beyond any doubts we have about the legitimacy of the process of his installation, Raul has now governed for three years and it's worth judging those years by looking at what happened, and not just on the anomalous circumstances of Raul's selection.

It has not been a period of immobility, at least among the ruling clique. In these three years officials dismissed or removed for specific reasons include at least: Five vice presidents (Carlos Lage, Otto Rivero, Jorge Luis Sierra, Pedro Miret and Osmany Cienfuegos), as well as the ministers of education, foreign affairs, sugar, transportation, basic industry, light industry, economy, construction, water resources, health and telecommunications, along with the president of the Institute of Civil Aviation and the attorney general.

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We have no knowledge of similar movements within the Armed Forces, but we do know that many of the new ministers came from there, so one might deduce a certain “militarization” of the structure of power, though it involves an Army that for some years has undertaken the hardly orthodox, but nevertheless agreeable, task of obtaining the greatest return on capital. In the short term, it is a guarantee of control; in the long term it suggests an augmentation of the role of that institution, now becoming more and more intricately intertwined with the government and the economy of the nation.

For less than this, any normal country would admit to a political crisis serious enough to trigger the resignation of the head of state. But in the perverse logic of the Cuban system, the recognition of such a deep crisis as this one has only served to soften the new change of direction that answers to the euphemistic name of “updating the model.” From the same presidential platform we hear warnings of the dangers, but always with an authoritarian discourse that tries to renew the precarious hope of the population in a system already showing advanced signs of exhaustion.

The "General President," as historian Eusebio Leal baptized him in a fit of eloquent servility, speaks far less than his predecessor, although not because he lays out for us a smaller number of broken promises: the glass of milk “that everyone who wants to can drink” is still on its way, and the marabou weed is still a common part of the landscape. The famous link between wages and productivity, established in the 2008 resolution that removed the cap on state salaries, didn’t turn out to be a panacea as it was announced.

Emblematic sectors such as health and education have suffered a radical degeneration in this same period, as many social programs have been shelved. Corruption scandals have peppered every enterprise related to convertible currency investments - including the Armed Forces - without any hint of an open debate on the subject. They have raised prices across the board - from electricity to the food and household items "liberated" from the basic market basket: rice, sugar, peas, coffee, soap, toothpaste, cigarettes and so on.

Although the present government authorized, long ago, the private leasing of land to individuals, 40 percent of arable land remains idle. Many obstacles stand in the way of Cuban agricultural reform, such as the scarcity of tools, fencing, fertilizer and pesticide. The process of commercializing products is Kafkaesque. The peasantry’s decisions are not stimulated by a lease term of 10 years - yet at the same time foreign companies can lease Cuban soil for 99 years. The absence of a legal framework appropriate to the new economic conditions is clear. Agricultural and livestock production has declined at an alarming rate in the last two years.

Nevertheless, some doubts from two years ago have been cleared up with a series of measures aimed at guaranteeing an orderly transition to a state capitalism model - or corporatism - similar to that of Vietnam.

Although it's difficult to disregard that this model is hindered by the paradoxes of self-employment in a ruined country, the obvious inability to secure credit and inputs, and the absurdity of some of the irrationally high taxes, I am among those who look favorably on the current reforms and the dismantling of the paternalistic state that “Raulism” is undertaking. Accepting that strong measures of some kind are inevitable, the political costs deserve to fall on those who have created the disaster and not on the next government, which must come about through a new social pact.

Those who planted the seeds during 50 years of authoritarian rule should be those who now harvest the burden of its economic failure. These are the same people who have created a scenario where the virtual disappearance of the rationing system coincides with mass unemployment by decree with almost no subsidies. Undoubtedly it's now healthy to defend "the wisdom of aspiring to collective and individual progress through the dignity of work." But it would not be misplaced to dedicate a tribute to the victims of the last five decades, when such wisdom was absent from the official creed or, even worse, severely penalized.

Where Raulism has brought no progress is political freedom. Timid and circumscribed debates and discussions on specific topics have been accompanied by heightened repression and systematic violations of human rights. A process of cathartic debate at workplaces mediated by organizations such as the Cuban Workers Union and the Communist Party have failed to go beyond propaganda-focused formalities. Independent media and opinions continue to be penalized. Censorship and exclusion have become brazen. Political decadence and corruption within the party structure remains a taboo subject; the absurd mantra of "new thinking" in the party is best represented by a decree making Cuba's "national shirt," the guayabera, compulsory at official functions.

Civil society is a pipe dream: entertained in the debates of the official magazine Temas, held behind closed doors. The figure of the intellectual courtesan has been firmly enthroned as a counterweight to the elemental provisions of the guild. The arbitrariness of the current immigration and travel legislation has multiplied. And a tedious strategy of ideological counteroffensive, designed to limit the democratizing impact of the Internet and new technologies in Cuban society, hasheadlines in the global press.

In recent years, the only important title holders of note belong to the opposition. The death in prison of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the prolonged hunger strike of Guillermo Fariñas, the courageous marches of the Ladies in White, were all detonators that relaunched the role of internal dissent. The recent releases of some prisoners of conscience and the forced exile of others are, in some way, the government’s recognition of its own inability to respond to a systematic campaign of denunciation by the press and institutions of the democratic world.

While some in the external world still hope for definitive reforms within Cuba - we Cubans will only believe it possible when such reforms don’t come packaged in the Lineamientos: the Cuban Communist Party's own guidelines.

Ernesto Hernandez Busto is a Cuban essayist and translator living in Barcelona. He edits the blog Penultimos Días (Penultimate Days).

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