by Jeff Hutter
Tomorrow, Dec. 1, Cuban farmers will be able to circumvent government intervention and sell produce directly to hotels and restaurants.
The reform is one of the myriad of changes President Raul Castro has instituted over the last several months. The most notable reforms granted citizens the freedom to buy and sell houses and automobiles. Outsiders have considered the changes as strides towards a free market economy, but Castro has insisted the changes are an effort to bolster the communist state’s floundering economy, which he insists will remain aimed at social equality.
The move grants access to the tourist sector, a sector that many consider Cuba’s strongest asset. Permitting direct sales from farm to table may prevent loss of crops due to transportation difficulties while also adding diversity to food selection for tourists.
While it is too early to speculate the extent to which farmers may benefit financially from the changes, if their experience is anything like car owners who have been able to exchange jalopies for cash then they stand a good chance. Regardless of how lucrative these changes will prove to be for Cuban farmers, the reform alone demonstrates a gradual progression for the troubled state.
With the Arab Spring resulting in the end of oppressive authoritarian rule in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt, the changes may signal recognition of people power. While the Cuban government maintains a strict control of media and social networks, it is nonetheless possible that the overthrow of decade-long dictatorships facilitated by social media served as a warning sign to the communist regime. It’s unlikely that Raul Castro and the Cuban government fear similar consequences as the reforms have likely been instituted to stimulate the stagnant economy.
However, it is important to remember that a poor economy can certainly lead to a loss of power no matter what country it may be. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation as prime minister (please see “Italy: The Economic Crisis Pushes Berlusconi Out” for more) and the recent election loss for Spain’s ruling party support this notion.
Perhaps spurred on by the impatience of Cubans with the so-called “special period,” an economic crisis that has gripped the island for a generation, long before this global economic downturn, Castro has also allowed small openings for free speech but no major reform. The Catholic Church has supported various samizdat publications for years and these have been allowed greater circulation. Although civil society groups such as the Ladies in White have faced government surveillance and some would say harassment, the government has not moved to shut them down. Many dissidents who were imprisoned have been freed. And recently, the authoritarian government allowed Yoani Sanchez, one of the island’s free speech advocates, renowned blogger, and Twitter user, to criticize Castro’s daughter without direct and immediate retaliation. (Of course, this did not pass without Mariela Castro calling Sanchez a “parasite.”)
Despite that verbal food fight, the only thing to do with this food for thought is to let it digest and observe the farming (and other) reforms’ implications. We will have to see if somehow these new reforms inspire stronger social movements, civil society, and groups able to lobby for further changes in Cuba.
(The photo of the Cuban wall hanging is by Emily Hoyer of San Francisco, Calif. via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)