As Cuban ruler Raúl Castro marks his fifth official year in power on Sunday, some Cubans might well be asking, like the U.S. advertising campaign, “Got Milk?”
In his first major speech after succeeding ailing brother Fidel, Castro declared that the government’s highly centralized and inept system for collecting and distributing milk was “absurd” and vowed to fix it.
Today, some towns are indeed getting not just more milk but also butter and cheese, yet others are no better off — mirroring the sharply contrasting assessments of the economic reforms Castro launched to dig the island out of its communism-induced quagmire.
Some Cubans say the newly allowed private economic activity already has made daily life a bit easier for most of the island’s 11.2 million people, with more sellers offering more goods and more buyers finding more of the goods they seek.
“Look, I see a lot of people smiling because there are more ways to make a living and I have more pork to sell,” said Mori, the nickname of a salesman in a Havana butchers’ kiosk. “And people are buying, even though the prices are high.”
“You can’t say that Raúl’s Cuba is the same as Fidel’s Cuba. You just have to go on the streets to see that,” said dissident Havana economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe.
“I am surprised at how fast Raúl has moved, in the context of the previous half-century” added Archibald Ritter, an economist at Carleton University in Ottawa who runs the blog The Cuban Economy.
But Espinosa Chepe, Ritter and other knowledgeable Cuba-watchers say the reforms have been far too slow and too meek to reverse nearly half a century of brutally incompetent central government and its controls, Soviet Union-style, over virtually the entire economy.
Castro’s main reforms are “positive and well-oriented” and have accelerated in the past six months but remain “insufficient to solve the socio-economic problems accumulated in 50 years of centralized socialism ... due to obstacles and disincentives,” said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, the dean of Cuba economists and author of the Spanish-language book Cuba en la Era de Raúl Castro.
The list of reform initiatives launched since Castro officially succeeded Fidel on Feb. 24, 2008, is long and impressive and points to a strategy of allowing more capitalism but not democracy that looks like the China model —- though Havana insists it’s on its own path.
He has legalized non-agricultural cooperatives, allowed more private businesses and farming, offered them loans and permitted them to hire non-family employees. He has cut the bloated state payrolls, legalized the sale of homes and cars and allowed Cubans to stay in previously tourist-only hotels.
Most importantly, Cubans say, the removal of the much-hated “exit permit” last month for those who want to travel abroad has eased the sense of isolation and entrenchment that prevailed during Fidel Castro’s hardliner search for a socialist utopia.
But Raúl Castro has repeatedly said he’s proceeding apace to “update” the economy — never “reform” it — and his No. 2, José Ramón Machado Ventura, has dismissed those “who demand faster advances, naively thinking they will lead to capitalism.”