Chipping away at Cuba’s totalitarian state

These days it is really hard to know whether to feel optimistic or pessimistic about Cuba. And that’s a good thing.

For too many years most exiles have had only one view of the island: It was all bad and getting worse. The rest of the world looked on with misty eyes and saw what they wanted to see: a decaying but beautiful city — it was always about Havana, anyway — that resisted the embattlement of the sea and of the powerful enemy to the north with dignity and rumba or rumba and dignity, depending on the optic.

But the narrative has changed.

Dissidents and independent voices from the island have been allowed to travel and return, seemingly, without consequences or actos de repudio. Yet, some can’t leave, either because the Cuban government does not allow them to or because the U.S. government refuses to grant them visas.

As renowned Harvard professor Jorge Domínguez said recently in a talk in New York, “Both governments have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Internet service began on Tuesday, and Cubans can now visit more than 100 computer centers around the country to go online, but at a very steep cost. In a country where the average salary is $20 a month, most people can’t spend $5 for an hour of Internet access.

The island has a shrinking, aging population. People are not reproducing. In part, Domínguez said, because Cubans are worried about their economic circumstances and about the future. Studies have shown that one out of five Cubans lives in poverty — and that’s according to a definition of poverty that most of us would consider extreme (people whose income falls below $4 a month, don’t grow their own food, don’t get free lunch at work and do not receive any remittances from abroad).

On the other hand, some 400,000 Cubans now have licenses that allow them to operate their own businesses. Assuming they hire others, Domínguez estimates that about 2 million Cubans are independently employed in small to medium enterprises financed, mostly, by the exile community. (Remittances remain the third most important revenue for the Cuban economy, after the income from the exportation of services, such as doctors, and the dollars pouring in from 2.5 million tourists a year).

However, not everyone who wants to be self-employed can obtain a license. The government has been very specific about the 178 categories allowed. For instance, teachers are not on the list, but tutors are; carpenters can repair furniture but they can’t make any because there is no wood.

Though Domínguez said Raúl Castro is chipping away at the totalitarian state, the fact is the state remains in control. There is one party, no recognized opposition, no freedom of expression or assembly and none of the markers that indicate that the island is moving toward democracy.

Still, gays have finally been accepted (even Fidel has apologized for his persecution of homosexuals) and Raúl has abolished the dreaded “volunteer” work.

The United States and Cuba continue to cooperate amicably — and despite the rhetoric of both countries — in a variety of ways. Three out of four chickens consumed on the island come from the United States, Domínguez said, thanks to an exception of the embargo that allows agricultural exports to Cuba. It’s a perfect deal for Americans: Cuba must pay cash.

Cuba is on the list of countries that support terrorists, yet the two countries cooperate on a variety of security issues, mainly immigration. Rafters caught at sea are routinely taken back to the island.

The most important change, of course, is that the Castro brothers have given up power or announced they will. Fidel ceded to Raúl, and Raúl has appointed his successor, Miguel Díaz Canel. There is a lot wrong with this equation. Modern, progressive leaders trust their people to make these decisions. Modern, progressive people demand their right to make those decisions.

And here’s where my pessimism seeps in.

From the good old days of flawed capitalism the country moved on to an exalted state of ruthless communism only to arrive to the more familiar territory of banana republics — but without the bananas — where a rudderless oligarchy controls a mostly impoverished population and blames the United States for its failures.

When Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez was in New York almost three months ago she spoke a great deal about walking through the doors that the government had opened a crack. This past week, Domínguez used the same analogy. Can he, meaning Raúl Castro, push this door wider and open the windows as well?

No one knows. But the fact that smart people who study Cuba carefully are asking the question is important. It means there is hope. It means the fate of the nation remains in flux, and flux is better than stasis. In metallurgy, “flux” is a purifying agent. That’s exactly what the island needs: a cleaning agent to make sense of these muddled, confusing signs, with some arrows pointing to the future and others straight to the past.

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