Castro capitalism: How much is Cuba opening up?
Power Shift: It is no Arab Spring, but Communist Cuba is trying to tap
in to the country's entrepreneurial spirit
By Connie Watson, CBC News
Last Updated: Apr 26, 2012 7:19 AM ET
Rafael Hernandez, the head of Cuba's largest cultural magazine, Temas,
lost his last editor to Canada. She fell in love with a Canadian,
married and moved away.
So a few months ago, Hernandez put out the call for a replacement and
nearly 30 qualified applicants replied. He was stunned.
In the past, he says, maybe three or four candidates would apply for
that kind of position because it was a permanent job and, until
recently, a permanent job meant a government job with pay so low it
didn't pay the bills.
In Cuba, over the past 20 years or so, the only way to get ahead was to
juggle several contract jobs at a time.
So what's changed? Why the sudden interest in Hernandez's magazine job?
"Many Cubans are re-evaluating how important it is to have a permanent
job," says Hernandez, who believes that this re-evaluation is a sign of
the times, a sign that Cuba's cloistered system is changing so much that
suddenly workers are searching for stability, poorly paid or not.
What is going on here, though, is no Arab Spring.
There is no occupy movement taking over Havana's plazas, no chaos in the
streets. In comparison to the tumult of the outside world, Cuba's power
shift is pretty modest.
But when such an ideological, one-party state starts stirring in a
little capitalism, albeit Castro-style, it's a bit like a controlled
explosion. The foundations are shaking and it's waking up the residents.
Downsizing the state
As part of this shakeup, some Cubans are clearly searching for more
stable ground (the permanent job); others are taking on the challenge of
striking out on their own.
One big motivating factor is that in the next little while
half-a-million government jobs are about to be eliminated.
President Raul Castro announced the dramatic downsizing in 2010. It was
supposed to happen early in 2011. But the layoffs have already been
That's another sign of the times. The Cuban government wants fewer
people on the payroll. But so far there is not enough work for them
The private sector, such as it is, is just getting on its feet and
municipal governments, which are supposed to pick up the job slack, are
still waiting for Castro to deliver on his promise of handing along more
power and projects from central command.
The Castro regime certainly doesn't want hundreds of thousands of Cubans
sitting around with no work, no money and no prospects.
A pool of unemployed that large, in a country that once promised every
citizen a job for life, would be difficult to deal with.
"The consequences," says Hernandez, "could be politically not good."
Risk and reward
At this point, while legions of public service employees wait for the
axe to fall, many have already made the transition.
Abiel San Miguel used to be a government architect. Now he's co-owner of
a hot new restaurant in Old Havana called Dona Eutimia's.
Since it opened about a year ago it has become a favourite of the city's
bohemian crowd of artists, filmmakers and musicians.
But its good food attracts anyone with enough money to dine out, and
gives the old mansion an eclectic mix of clients.
San Miguel loves the risk and the reward of being his own boss.
"Honestly, I didn't change professions just for the money, although this
does pay better," he says. "I love what I'm doing now. And the more you
love what you do, the more success you'll have."
Still, the capitalist concept of risk and reward is new to the majority
of Cubans, who have grown up under the one-party Communist state of
Fidel and now Raul Castro, both of them now in their 80s.
San Miguel says many of his compatriots aren't ready to let go of the
government's firm hand just yet. "We've always waited for the government
to give and give and give. And we have to change that mentality," he says.
"This kind of change will take years and really I prefer that," he says.
"It's better to take it slow and steady."
Some missing pieces
Most of the Cubans I talked with during a recent trip seem to agree.
After generations of Castro's control over every aspect of their lives,
they're not clamouring here for the creative chaos of an Arab Spring.
They really seem to feel that the government is easing up and they are
willing to wait and see how the changes pan out.
So far, Raul Castro has eased restrictions on cellphone use and travel,
which is allowing at least some Cubans to see more to the world around them.
He is also permitting Cubans to sell their cars and homes, and set up
All of these things were specifically requested by citizens who sent
letters to the government, at Castro's invitation.
The new president is even encouraging them to complain about what isn't
And Cubans are complaining like I've never heard them complain before —
at least to a foreign journalist. (Which has always been more risky than
complaining to each other.)
The other noticeable change is that, the younger the Cuban, the more
impatient they are for the system to open up and the less fear they have
of speaking out.
That could be a generational shift, linked to how connected younger
Cubans are to the outside world through their smartphones, computers and
the internet. They're simply not as intellectually isolated as their
Thanks to blogs, emails and alternative publications, Cubans have more
channels to express themselves than ever before.
But the change underway in Cuba right now can't all be explained by
modern technology. The layoffs, the downsizing, the decentralizing all
play a role.
"If people don't depend on the state for their job, that gives them a
lot more freedom," says university professor Julio Cesar Guanche.
Overall, this translates into "a lot less capacity for the state to
exercise a monopoly over opinion."
That's a healthy sign — for a democracy. Which Cuba is not. Far from it,
in fact, and the Castro government insists it has no intention of going
Cuba remains a one-party state, in full control of the legislature and
the judicial system. Human rights advocates say the government is still
harassing and rounding up its harshest critics and putting them in jail
whenever it wants to.
But it's clear the government has less control over the livelihoods of
its people, and is also handing along a certain amount of control to
Power — whether it is over information, or income — is shifting away
from the government, and towards individual Cubans.
Hernandez, the magazine editor, likens the power shift to a puzzle with
many pieces still missing.
"You can see it's a different animal pictured in the puzzle," he says,
"but you don't know what animal it is yet." And of course how much of
this Cuban puzzle gets filled in, will depend on who ends up holding the