Reports and Comment: Cuba

Castro faces his country's difficulties
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A visitor can learn more about what is happening in Cuba today from the wall posters around Havana than from the dreary official newspaper Granma, although since the posters and billboards are also government-produced, they express the official line. The slogan most commonly seen on street corners and along highways in Cuba does not refer to the glories of socialism or to the "deepening friendship" with the Soviet Union; instead, it reflects the economic trouble in which Cuba has found itself of late: "We will confront our difficulties and we will overcome them."

The signs went up shortly after September 28, 1976, the day that Prime Minister Castro spoke to several hundred thousand of his countrymen in the Plaza of the Revolution. (When the Cuban government has bad news for its people, Castro delivers it personally. "There is only one newspaper in Cuba," explained one Cuban. "It is Fidel, when he speaks to the people.") In that speech, the Cuban leader outlined his nation's current economic difficulties and launched what promises to be a fairly extended period of domestic austerity.

Because sugar is the mainstay of the economy (Cuba is the world's leading sugar producer), it was natural that Castro should single it out as the culprit for the present "difficulties." Cuba spent 1973 and 1974 riding the crest of the booming international sugar market, but today the decline of that market foretells hard times.

In November 1974, sugar brought 65.5 cents a pound. Two years later, the price had dropped to 7.5 cents. The economic problem has been compounded by a lengthening drought and by the United States's tripling of sugar import taxes last year, an act which Castro called "a brutal aggression against all sugar-producing countries."

He went on to offer his analysis of the situation:

"The problem is not that the price of sugar has sharply declined. The problem is that the world is living in an era of international economic crisis, a time of extraordinary inflation, and while the price of sugar has greatly declined, the prices of articles we must import have remained very high, and in some cases have increased.

"And we are not like the petroleum producing countries, which have a monopoly that allows them to set prices at will ... petroleum is sold on the world market at some twenty times the cost of its production; sugar today is selling for less than its cost."

Castro then announced a new sacrifice that the already hard-pressed Cubans would have to bear: the weekly ration of coffee-Cuba's favorite drink-would be cut by one third as a reaction to the increases in world coffee prices.

Circulation troubles

The achievements of the Cuban revolution are familiar. No country in Latin America can yet match Cuba's accomplishments in housing, education, literacy, or health care. But less visible are the sacrifices the Cuban people have made for what they have built. In preparing for austerity, Cubans are not facing something unknown, but continuing a cycle of enforced sacrifice which has existed since the first days of the Castro era. Among his other talents, Castro is a master propagandist, and he has managed a feat that eludes most leaders: he has convinced his people that personal sacrifice is a patriotic duty.

The economic crunch in Cuba doesn't have the same effect on individuals that it would in a capitalist society. Cubans still have plenty of money. A paying job is not only guaranteed but mandatory for each adult male. Many families have more than one breadwinner; the labor-intensive Cuban economy can always absorb more workers. Basic expenses are minimal-education and health care are free, and rent cannot exceed 10 percent of the income of the head of household.

But although there is more money circulating more widely in Cuba than ever before, a familiar paradox emerges: there isn't much to buy. Consumer goods are rare and often allotted according to need or "revolutionary merit"; the purchase of clothing is restricted; travel abroad is difficult; and thousands of items which Westerners and even many Eastern Europeans take for granted are unavailable. A visitor to Cuba these days is likely to be approached on the street and asked to sell his jeans, T-shirt, or sunglasses.

The accumulation of wealth by individuals poses problems in a socialist society. As the amount of money in circulation increases, the amount available to the government decreases proportionally, imposing budget limitations which the government naturally sees as unnecessary and artificial. Cuban economists faced with this problem considered three alternatives.

First, and perhaps most obvious, Cuba could devalue its currency, thereby reducing the value of privately held money, and then print more for the exclusive use of government. This was rejected for "reasons of international trade," according to a Cuban official-which may mean that the plan would have created problems with the Soviets. Castro has repeatedly stressed his government's commitment to "meet its international financial obligations"; Cuba is, significantly, not among the nations calling for a debt moratorium with the West.

The second option considered by JUCEPLAN, the central economic planning body, was an across-the-board increase in prices, perhaps coupled with the temporary imposition of charges for some services which had been free. This was rejected, after what must have been an interesting discussion, for "ideological" reasons.

The final option, which was adopted when the problem first arose nearly, two years ago, was to impose selective price increases on popular luxury items. A Cuban who pays $2 for a pack of cigarettes (beyond his two-pack-a-week ration) or $10 for a standard restaurant lunch knows, therefore, that he is paying those prices for reasons of national economic policy, not to compensate for increased costs.

According to official sources, the amount of money in circulation is gradually declining, as planners had predicted. But the inevitably slow pace of recovery under this policy has contributed to the economic difficulty facing Castro's revolutionary government.

Another, more recent attempt to stimulate the economy is the re-introduction of taxes, which had been virtually eliminated in the early days of the Revolution. In the past few years there has been an easing of the restriction against private enterprise; it seems that the quality of repairs and personal services declined when the government clamped tight controls over prices and conditions of employment. Under new regulations, some dentists, doctors, electricians, carpenters, and photographers are allowed to do private work on their own time-but they must kick in part of their earnings as tax. A similar arrangement has been established for tailors, bootblacks, dressmakers, watch repairmen, gardeners, and others who are allowed to do private work on a full-time basis.

Plans for the future

Efforts to bolster Cuba's economy were further helped in December 1975, when Castro gave a two-day speech to the First Congress of the Cuban Communist party outlining the components of the nation's first five-year plan. He set a goal of 6 percent annual growth in the economy, which would mean, if successful, a doubling of economic production from 1969 to 1980. He called for a 35 to 40 percent increase in the sugar crop and a "significantly accelerated" program of industrialization.

The five-year plan has not been referred to recently by the Cuban press, so it is difficult to determine whether it is proceeding on schedule-though at, least some parts must inevitably have been substantially reduced in scope. Cuba's greatest economic strength is that it has a guaranteed market for sugar in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe; its greatest weakness is being at the mercy of international forces when it comes to selling the balance of the sugar crop to the West, with neither guaranteed prices nor guaranteed purchases.

Cuba's economic protector remains the Soviet Union. Soviet aid totals more than $1 million a day, and Soviet visitors are always evident in Cuban hotels. The character of the Cuban-Soviet relationship was most clearly demonstrated in 1972, when the two nations signed a major economic agreement. The repayment terms are very favorable to Cuba, including a moratorium on further accumulation of interest on its considerable debt (now over $5 billion). But Cuba's repayment will continue until 2014, and in light of that fact it is difficult to foresee any fundamental change in Cuban-Soviet relations for some time to come.

In at least one area, however Castro's economic goals are being met and surpassed: tourism. There are so many Canadian tourists visiting Cuba these days (nearly 40,000 last year) that a Havana vacation has become part the standard description of the archetypal Canadian bourgeois. Visitors arrive from Japan, Italy, France, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia. Six modern hotels have been built in the last three years and twenty-three more are under construction. Cubans on their annual one-month paid vacations fill the hotels in the summer, and foreigners fill them in the winter, when most Cubans consider it "too cold" to swim.

This year, the Cubans are going after the greatest concentration of tourist dollars in the world: the United States. Over the last few months, several American travel agencies have been granted the right to bring in tour groups, and literally thousands more are clamoring for a piece of the newly reopened market. One Canadian operator who has been running tours to Cuba for quite a while is now advertising "the first opportunity in 17 years for U.S. citizens to vacation in Cuba.” As a Cuban official explained, "Tourism is the best way to get foreign exchange, and the U.S. is the best place to get tourists."

"We never shut the door to Americans," said Gary Gonzalez of Cubatur the national tourist agency. "It was the U.S. government officials that shut the door." For fifteen years, the State Department has sought to discourage travel to Cuba on the basis of the so-called "Trade with the Enemy Act," which was passed in 1916 to inhibit the flow of supplies to the Kaiser's Germany. Many Americans defied the ban, especially after the Supreme Court ruled that the Passport Office does not have the right to limit travel. President Carter has lately lifted all remaining travel restrictions on Americans, and it seems likely that several thousand American tourists will visit Cuba during the 1977-1978 season.

Structural changes

In Cuba, 1976 was dominated by two developments which the government considers of paramount importance. The first was the economic difficulties and the myriad efforts, many of them unannounced, which the Cubans are making to overcome them. But the economic situation is fluid, and an overnight change in world conditions could radically alter Cuba's position. The other development is of greater long-range significance. It is the emergence of what Castro has called "a new, more mature phase" in the Cuban revolution, "the democratization of the revolutionary process."

A new phase, like a change in economic conditions, is evidenced by a new slogan on the billboards that used to advertise Coca-Cola and the Bank of America. "Men die," the phrase goes, "but the Party is immortal." To a visitor, the slogan may seem just another reminder of the Marxist orthodoxy which is Cuba's guide. But Cubans, sensitized by speeches, newspapers, and mass meetings, find meaning in the new line. To them, it is an indication that their country is completing the most significant overhaul of its government structure since the revolution of 1959.

The history of post-revolutionary Cuba can be seen as a series of often contradictory stages. The industrialization campaign of the early sixties gave way to a return to agriculture; the cultural permissiveness of the Guevara era yielded to stricter controls on art; material incentives for workers, once scorned as reactionary, have become commonplace in many industries. Now a major new stage in the Cuban revolution has arrived, and the billboard slogans are only its most visible part. No longer content with the ill-defined Castro-centered bureaucracy, the Cuban government is moving to consolidate itself and establish a structure which, Cubans hope, will last long beyond the tenure of the current leaders.

The first public acknowledgement that major changes were forthcoming was made in 1970, after the failure of the ten-million-ton sugar harvest on which Castro had staked "the honor of the revolution." In a series of speeches that year, Castro accepted responsibility for the failure and admitted that “the revolutionary process itself has gradually revealed the inconvenience of [existing] bureaucratic methods." He repeatedly stated the opinion that the failure happened because Havana-based bureaucrats had taken over the decision-making powers that should belong to local people. Popular sovereignty, he said, "had taken a back seat-not through the fault of either the worker’s organizations or the workers themselves, but through our fault, the Party's fault, the fault of the country’s political leadership." Without offering an alternative to the unchallenged power of the small Communist party he emphasized that "our Party's role is not, nor can it ever be, that of replacing the administration or the workers organizations."

These speeches marked a departure for Castro. During the first years the 1970s, he wove his new line into two processes already under way: the preparation of a national constitution, which had been started in 1965 but had remained on the back burner for some time, and the plans for the First Party Congress. The long-postponed Congress was held at the end of 1975, and the new constitution took effect soon afterward. Last October 10, in accordance with the constitution, Cubans went to the polls for the first time to elect local representatives to 169 municipal assemblies.

Candidates were nominated last summer at open neighborhood meetings under the supervision of the national Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). Up to eight candidates could be nominated, and each was photographed and interviewed for an official biography, which was then posted on bulletin boards in the neighborhood. No other form of campaigning was permitted-no speeches, literature, canvassing.

The "biographical syntheses" heavily emphasized revolutionary work, both before and after 1959. This candidate helped publish an anti-Batista newspaper, this one sabotaged a refinery, this one volunteered to fight for the Arbenz regime in Guatemala in 1954. One candidate was mobilized during the missile crisis, another was honored for exemplary work in the cane fields, another is a political leader in his factory.

More than 70 percent of the 30,000 candidates were members of the Communist party or its youth affiliate, a fact which Castro said "demonstrates the authority and prestige which our Party enjoys among the masses."

Cuba's brand-new structure is complicated, but no more so than that of comparable nations. The more than 10,000 delegates elected to the municipal assemblies on October 10 then elected delegates to fourteen provincial assemblies; the provincial delegates in turn selected deputies to the National Assembly of People's Power, which is "the supreme organ of state power."

The Communist party, of course, retains the real power. The assemblies are supposed to direct the administration of government and the delivery of basic services; the party, in accordance with Fidel's speeches, will concentrate on setting general policy within which the assemblies will function. The stated goals of this system of "People's Power” are direct public control of public services and decentralization of decision-making.

Many obvious questions surround People's Power, and others will certainly arise as time goes on. Cuban leaders themselves appear less than certain of where this process will lead. The line of authority between the assemblies and the party is very unclear, for example; Castro seems to want a genuine separation of the two, but at the same time he cautions that the new structure represents "a division of functions, not a division of power."

No one seems to know just what the assemblies will do, particularly at the provincial level, where their functions are especially ill-defined. While it seems likely that the municipal assemblies will have a real effect on daily life-partly because they are democratically elected-the same cannot be said for certain about the provincial and national assemblies, many of whose members were nominated by the party and other organizations.

About 55 percent of the 481 deputies in the National Assembly were originally elected to municipal assemblies by their neighbors last October; the others were "nominated" so that the assembly would include "outstanding workers of the arts, sports and science, national heroes of labor, and internationalist fighters." Among these are Olympic boxing champion Teofilo Stevenson, filmmaker Santiago Alvarez, writer Alejo Carpentier, actor Sergio Corrieri (who may be remembered for his starring role in Memories of Underdevelopment), poet Nicolas Guillen, and cane-cutting champion Reynaldo Castro.

When the National Assembly elected its Council of State-a kind of executive committee-during its first meeting on December 2, there were no surprises: all of Cuba's top leaders moved easily into their new positions. The Council of Ministers contained some fresh faces, many of them representative of a younger generation of administrators whose professional experience is all in the post-revolution period. Raul Roa, the seventy-year-old foreign minister, was replaced by a younger man, Isidoro Malmierca, but foreign policy will continue to be overseen by Carlos Rafael Rodriguez, a Politburo member and Cuba's third-ranking leader.

Thus the structural changes in Cuba during the last year are of interest more for their potential than for what they have already wrought. New positions and new organizations have been filled, at the top anyway, by familiar people. But at least two important things have been achieved. First, a group of local bodies, the municipal assemblies, have been elected with remarkable freedom and enthusiasm, and will probably be given at least some significant local duties. And second, the structure which has been established is intended to allow men to die (or quit, or be purged) while the party (that is to say, the national government and the revolution) remains "immortal."

Outside influences

The war in Angola is not a frequent topic of conversation in Havana, at least not in the presence of foreigners. There is a certain reluctance to discuss the continuing Cuban involvement there beyond the stock words of enthusiasm culled from newspapers and billboards. Most Cubans seem to support the intervention, but at least some of them feel an undercurrent of concern.

Reports from several sources-difficult if not impossible to confirm-indicate that there have been rumblings of discontent within the Cuban armed forces of late, due at least in part to the Angola venture. Recent developments in the army do nothing to contradict those reports; there seems to be a coordinated campaign under way to raise military morale.

Each Cuban soldier has been promised six fancy new uniforms, an extraordinary act in a nation where many civilians have fewer than six changes of clothes. Many military salaries have been increased. A new military academy is being completed west of Havana. Every speech and article about the People's Power elections emphasized the freedom of soldiers to participate as voters and candidates.

Perhaps most interesting of all, the distinctive ranking system of the army-a legacy of guerrilla days-which offered only three officer ranks, captain, lieutenant, and major, has been scrapped in favor of a more traditional system which will give many soldiers new and more impressive-sounding titles. Fidel and Raul Castro, majors for twenty years, became generals in December.

The armed forces have not, of course, been the only target for reorganization during this event-filled year in Cuba. The traditional six provinces were abolished and replaced with a fourteen-province design aimed at greater economic efficiency. And the Cabinet has been restructured, through the creation of new posts and consolidation of existing ones, expanding to forty-three the number of officials with ministerial rank. The many economic posts in the new Cabinet are another confirmation of the priority still given to economic expansion.

One of Cuba's continuing hopes is that the sixteen-year-old U.S. trade embargo against it will be dropped. Cubans are obviously interested in the Carter Administration, but are wary of sounding too anxious. “Of course we want American goods,” said a young Havana housewife whose husband had gone through five pairs of locally made shoes in the last year and a half. "But that's up to the Americans, isn't it?"

In the meantime, Havana is full of foreign traders. Western Europeans, Japanese, and Canadians have found a lucrative market in Cuba for goods as diverse as cows, elevators, and birth-control pills.

"I am a capitalist," explained a representative of a Canadian air-conditioning firm as he sipped a beer beside the pool of the Havana Riviera Hotel. "That means I capitalize on situations. Right now, I'm capitalizing on the American embargo."

If the embargo is not yet the "sieve" that one West German businessman called it, it is certainly not leakproof. It is an open secret in Havana that a number of American firms have set up dummy subsidiaries abroad for the exclusive purpose of trading with Cuba. Some enterprising Canadians have done quite well for themselves by buying goods in the United States and shipping them through Canada to Cuba.

By far the best-known department of the U.S. government in Cuba is the Central Intelligence Agency. As is common in Cuba, the acronym is pronounced as a word rather than as separate letters; the agency is referred to as "la cia." Not surprisingly, “la cia" has become an incarnation of evil in the eyes of many Cubans. Castro himself presented Senator George McGovern with a list of twenty-four attempts on his or his associates' lives, all supposedly planned by the CIA, and a similar list was recently published in Cuba.

The October 6 sabotage of a Cuban airliner off the coast of Barbados sharply intensified the anti-CIA feeling that is always near the surface in Cuba. Billboards reading "CIA Murderers" went up shortly after the crash. In his memorial speech, Castro proclaimed that "the CIA is behind all these deeds" and asked, "Who, if not the CIA, could do these things?"

A new film about an actual attempt in 1961 to kill Raul Castro, for which several Cubans are still in jail, is the current hit in Havana. In the quasi-documentary style of Costa-Gavras, the film shows arms being smuggled to dissident officers through the Guantanamo naval base while the murder is planned in Havana. But the dissidents turn out to be double agents, and the CIA operatives are dramatically arrested before they can carry out their "clever and macabre" deed.

While thousands of Cubans were in line for the film, two U.S. senators, Floyd Haskell (D-Colo.) and Jam Abourezk (D-S.D.), were vacationing just a few miles outside of Havana. As Castro railed against the CIA, they expressed the opinion that enmity between Cuba and the United States would soon begin to ease.

"Ford just used the Angola thing as an excuse" to put off normalizing relations, Abourezk volunteered. "If Angola hadn't come up, they would have found something else." Both men proclaimed themselves "extremely impressed" with Cuba, Abourezk observing that the change from pre-Castro days is "dramatic and startling."

As that view, became more acceptable, and as it became acceptable for members of Congress to slip in and out of Cuba for vacations, some loosening of Washington policy seemed inevitable. The first move came late in March when the State Department opened negotiations with Cuban officials in New York for an American-Cuban agreement on fishing rights. The reopening of Cuba to American tourists, coupled with increasing pressure from American business interests foretells further changes in policy.

But Castro may find himself victim of his own propaganda.

"Who needs the Americans?" grumbled one Cuban laborer as he waited a seat at the Copelia ice cream parlor in downtown Havana. "They have been fighting us all these years, and we are still here. We have come this far without friends among the capitalists and we can continue. It will not be good for us to have many Americans here. They do not care for us."

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