Cuba picks away at some perks of socialism

NothJersey.com:

MIAMI — Cuba’s workplace cafeterias are closing, President Raul Castro keeps saying the well-off shouldn’t get the same subsidies as the poor, and now there are rumblings that one of the stalwart vestiges of the revolution — the ration booklet — has outlived its usefulness.

As the Cuban government struggles through a deep recession, its leaders have begun picking away at socialism in order to save it. But experts say the latest buzz by the Cuban government is simply another desperate fix to stem the slide of a failed economy that buckled long ago.

Big changes needed

Even one of Havana’s leading economists recently said Cuba’s economy needed to be turned upside down — “feet up.” So taxi drivers got private licenses, farmers now their land and government workers have to pack their own lunches.

“I think what they are trying to do is prepare the people for a hard landing,” said Cuba expert Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado of the University of Nebraska. “The government is really saying in so many words: We’ve got limited resources and can only do so much. I think they are stuck.”

Hard look at subsidies

In the 18 months since he took office, Raoul Castro restructured the nation’s agricultural system to give idle land to farmers in the hopes that they’ll produce when the state couldn’t. He also allowed taxi drivers to have private licenses; many of them were working illegally, anyway.

Castro suggested it was time to rethink fundamentals such as deep subsidies for everyone.

He started by saving $350 million by closing workplace cafeterias at four government ministries. Workers got a slight boost in pay as a result.

Earlier this month, the Cuban state newspaper Granma published a signed editorial from its top editor criticizing the so-called “supply card,” which provides Cubans with about a week and a half of deeply subsided groceries.

In an article titled “He’s paternalistic, you’re paternalistic, I’m paternalistic,” Granma editor Lazaro Barredo Medina blasted the Cuban “gimme” mentality.

Trying not to spend

“You don’t go to the store to buy, you go so they can give you what’s yours,” he wrote.

Barredo, a member of the Cuban National Assembly, did not say when changes to the system could take place. But in a country where the Communist Party and central government control the media, it was as if Castro had written the newspaper column himself.

“Of all the subjects and problems that can reach Grandma, they chose this one, so undoubtedly they are planning to eliminate what I call the [un]supply card,” Central Cuban dissident Guillermo Farinas said in a telephone interview. “They are doing things like that — and this pilot program to close the workplace cafeteria at some government ministries — because they are trying not to spend money on food. It goes against socialism, but it goes in favor of staying in power, which in the end is what interests the Castro dynasty.”

Low growth forecast

Earlier this year, the Cuban government announced that 2009 economic growth projections had dropped from 2.5 percent to 1.7 percent. Last year, when the rest of the world reeled from the global financial meltdown, Cuba was hit with three hurricanes that cost $10 billion.

Nickel prices tanked, and even tobacco production shrank drastically as fewer smokers around the world lit up.

Suddenly the rush was on to find ways to trim waste from Cuba’s inefficient economic model.

Shift toward reforms

“Cuba goes through cycles of strict ideological code, but that code does not function. That code leads to corruption, leads to the black market and leads to economic collapse,” said Baruch College professor Ted Henken. “So they shift back and forth, and they’ve been doing that for 45 or 50 years.”

For nearly 20 years, Cuba has more often shifted toward market reforms but always stressed that the political system was not to be debated, he said.

“There’s an expression in Cuba: You can play with the chain, but not the monkey,” Henken said. “That’s what they are doing: pulling at the chain, but the monkey is still attached.”

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Particular Cuba organizes travel to Cuba. Hotel booking, car rental, package tours, excursions, flights to Cuba.

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