Not adapting to its societal changes

HAVANA — At the start of 2017, Cuba is in many ways a very different country than in 1990. Two-and-a-half decades of major events have deeply marked a nation convinced that it occupies a singular place in the world.

In 1989, the Cuban state directly controlled an overwhelming proportion of the businesses and assets in the economy. Ninety percent of the workers were employed in the public sector, and basically all the factors and supplies were assigned in accordance with the criteria established by the government through the various entities of central planning.

In that scheme, the State easily secured the income that was generated (most of it from foreign trade) and redistributed it later in accordance with various priorities, both productive and social. The control of employment and income allowed the State to exercise a determining influence on the levels of consumption and distribution of wealth.

Full employment and a low wage differential were central components of this model, which propitiated levels of equity that were comparable with those of advanced nations with solid welfare states. Universal social policies were dominant and criteria of differentiation for access to public services and subsidies were almost never established.

The social achievements of that stage were indisputable and are still more impressive when taking into account a performance a lot more discreet in the economic sphere. The foreign compensation that came from the Soviet Union and the COMECON [the Soviet bloc’s mutual aid agreement] were key factors in the apparent solution of those contradictions. As is well known, that model foundered in the early 1990s.

One diagnosis that became popular at that time blamed the crisis on external factors and predicted that a recovery in the levels of economic activity would return us almost automatically to the pre-crisis society. Nevertheless, the crisis changed elements much more essential than the Gross Domestic Product.

The road selected to recover economic vitality has had lasting effects on the social structures. Two aspects deserve to be highlighted. In the first place, economic growth has not resulted in a similar recovery in the well-being of all homes.

Although the economy became diversified in terms of its traditional sectorial structure, there was a dearth of truly dynamic activities on the productive stage. And half-hearted reforms accentuated the model’s structural flaws.

Within that context emerged an exuberant informal economy that fed on the limitations of administrative control, the inefficiency of distribution and the recurring shortages.

On the other hand, the depression in real salaries, initially conceived as a symbol of the equitable distribution of the costs of the crisis and the subsequent adjustments, came here to stay. In that process, the value of public employment weakened and is now a synonym for want and failure to rise in the social pyramid.

In view of this situation, the families began to design and put into practice a set of strategies to ensure the home’s viability. Some of the solutions devised are almost obscene but, in the final analysis, are the consequence of the impact they had to face.

Sources of wealth detached from the social value of the propitiating activity began to consolidate. There was a rebirth of historical aspects that seemed asleep in the previous scheme but that regained their ability to explain trajectories of income and consumption.

We might mention the ownership of certain highly valued assets, such as houses, apartments and automobiles, places of residence and social networks inside and outside the island.

In today’s Cuba, the State still employs 70 percent of the labor force. But its influence on the real consumption in homes is far below that figure. Gauging from the effective consumption they make possible, public-sector payments represent less than half of the total income in most homes.

The capacity to decisively affect the distribution of wealth has been notably diminished. The result has been a growing disparity of income, anchored in long-range dimensions, along with the contradictions typical of our economic model and the delay in the updating of social policies.

Another element that changed radically was the relationship with the international economy and society. The increase in international tourism, foreign investment, the nearness of the Cuban diaspora, and the Internet are factors with great effect on the growing interaction with the rest of the world. Remittances became an appreciable source of hard-currency revenue.

Today, more people than ever are coming to Cuba. More Cubans travel abroad for various reasons than at any previous time. A growing number of businesses operate in the country, both commercial and investment companies. Access to the Internet remains limited but has grown appreciably since 2011.

All this presumes that the flow of information from and to Cuba has increased exponentially since 1989. This exchange alters ways of thinking and acting that don’t always proceed in line with what’s considered the preferred paradigm.

We’re talking about a heterogeneous society with some stratification, with a growing level of transnationalization, that very frequently follows the sources of progress beyond its borders, even through channels as major as irregular emigration. The transformation is huge, and several elements indicate that it can accelerate in the next several years. 

Despite all this, it’s quite common that efforts to understand this reality do not duly correspond. The actualization of our paradigm of progress has not yet taken place. In the drive for development, our endogenous capabilities remain in second place. The foreign capital enjoys greater guarantees than the nascent domestic private sector.

The new sources of employment outside the public sector don’t match the investment in education made over five decades. While maintaining an objective equality that’s impracticable in our circumstances, we maintain a model of social guarantees that rather exacerbates inequality, wherein citizens in very different situations receive the same public support. 

The Internet is an indissoluble part of contemporary societies. To delay its expansion here means, in the current circumstances, to severely limit the development of the productive forces.

The structures of citizen representation and participation have to adapt to this new socio-economic structure, lest they lose legitimacy. The creativity of homes, individuals and networks constantly challenges the traditional model of decision-making based on the “top-to-bottom” approach. The media are called upon to fully reveal these new dynamics.

The great majority of structural factors that explain the shaping and evolution of the Cuban model heretofore have changed radically, or are about to in a very few years.

Right now, elements such as a political leadership marked by charisma and historical legitimacy; the existence of foreign partners capable of providing an exceptional framework of economic and political support; a relative homogeneity of the Cuban population beginning with reduced disparities in income, demographic composition and political-ideological formation; and a certain economic isolation from the rest of the world as a consequence of the U.S. blockade, all these are being challenged.

Sooner or later, this socio-economic tsunami will have to be acknowledged by the public policies and will force a broad institutional redesign. The options are limited to whether we want to be the architects of this transformation or if the circumstances will force us to make hasty decisions.

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