Cuba: Sticking to the Plan

By Fulton Armstrong

Miguel Diaz Canel

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. / Irene Pérez / Cubadebate / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel passed the six-month mark in office this month, his administration – not surprisingly – continued to produce no surprises.  His rhetoric and policies, similar to the package of constitutional reforms now undergoing consulta popular and scheduled to be approved by referendum next February, are an extension of Raúl Castro’s tightrope walk between continuity and gradual change.

  • Speaking at the UN General Assembly in September, Díaz-Canel condemned the “selfishness and exclusion” of capitalism as the cause of poverty, instability, climate change, and other ills. He also proclaimed, “The generational change in [Cuba’s] government should not deceive the enemies of the revolution; we are continuity, not rupture.”  He welcomed the almost-friendless Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to join one of his biggest public appearances.  Showing his pragmatic side, however, Díaz-Canel also met in New York with U.S. technology companies and icons of U.S. capitalism – Google, Bloomberg, Microsoft, Twitter, and others – declared his hope to “computerize [Cuban] society,” and welcomed the announcement of the first U.S.-Cuban biotech joint venture.  Upon his return to Havana, he launched his own Twitter account.
  • On economic reform, Díaz-Canel has continued the same halting approach toward market socialism as did Raúl. New regulations announced in July, to be implemented in December, seemed designed to restrain the growth of the private sector rather than accelerate the reform program.  New mechanisms to ensure that cuentapropistas pay more taxes and operate within the law will dampen their growth in the short term and aggravate contradictions in current policies – for example, curbing black-market purchases of supplies without creating wholesale markets for them.

Ongoing national discussions on constitutional reforms, launched by the National Assembly in July, are compatible with Díaz-Canel’s approach to change.

  • The new document reaffirms two tenets of the Communist Party’s revolutionary platform – the party’s continued leading role as sole political representative of the Cuban nation, and a commitment to a socialist system in which state property predominates and universal social services remain free. But, importantly, the draft omits the goal in the 1976 constitution of “building a Communist society,” signaling the leadership’s recognition that private property and markets will be a permanent feature of the new Cuban model.  It reconfigures policymaking processes to increase efficiency (such as by formalizing the position of Prime Minister), increases the autonomy of local government, and separates more clearly executive and legislative functions.  An amendment allowing same-sex marriage has sparked heated public debate and given rise to an unprecedented political organizing drive by churches opposed to it.
  • The amended constitution does not significantly expand the space for private enterprise, but it provides a stronger legal foundation for the reforms that have already been implemented in various waves since 1992. The draft also strengthens protections of Cuban and foreign-owned private property and investment, providing guarantees against future expropriation.

When introducing changes over the years, the government has routinely, if not obsessively, emphasized continuity – and Díaz-Canel’s administration is proving to be no different.  The signs of change are often nuanced, whereas hardline positions, which tamp down progressives’ expectations and assuage conservatives’ anxieties, are unmistakable.  Díaz-Canel’s adherence to Raúl’s program gives him both essential political cover emphasizing continuity as well as a platform for continuing gradual change.  That formula doesn’t help him with some major challenges, such as the need to unify the country’s two currencies, that have loomed large for several years.  But Díaz-Canel’s gradualist approach – particularly if enshrined in a new constitution next year – is compatible with the view held by many Cubans that change should be evolutionary, not disruptive, even if they wish it went faster.  Washington’s curtailment of bilateral normalization is depriving the private sector of much-needed resources to drive change, but the country’s continued international outreach and expansion of internet access have given entrepreneurs a moral, if not economic, lifeline.  Cubans have often said they’ll do change “their own way,” and Díaz-Canel, with his abundance of caution, may be leading that process. 

October 31, 2018

Cuba: Trump Actions Strengthening Hardliners

By Fulton Armstrong and William M. LeoGrande

Two buildings in a composite photo

On the left, the U.S. Embassy in Havana; on the right, the Cuban Embassy in D.C. / U.S. Government Accountability Office / Flickr / Creative Commons

As the end of Raúl Castro’s presidency approaches, Trump Administration actions halting, if not reversing, the process of normalizing relations with Cuba have tilted debate in Havana in favor of hardliners trying to keep the brakes on economic reform and on constructive relations with Washington.

  • In retaliation for alleged “sonic attacks” against U.S. diplomats in Havana, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s ordered departure of staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the closure of the U.S. consulate, and the expulsion of Cuban consular and commercial staff in Washington –has put a chill on bilateral relations that ratifies Havana hardliners’ contention that Washington cannot be trusted. By halting the issuance of visas to Cubans in Havana, the Trump Administration will almost certainly violate the 1994 migration accord committing the United States to issue at least 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans annually.  That would rupture the longstanding bipartisan consensus in Washington that bilateral cooperation on migration serves an important U.S. interest in safe and orderly migration.
  • The State Department’s unwillingness to share meaningful information on the U.S. diplomats’ mysterious symptoms – underscored by the Embassy’s refusal to use a hotline established for Cuba to investigate alleged attacks real-time – has frustrated pro-normalization Cubans, who face conservatives’ claims that Washington is cynically exploiting the incident to embarrass Cuba and return to a policy of hostility and regime change.
  • Other Trump measures reinforce Cuban conservatives’ efforts to limit the growth of the country’s nascent private sector, particularly entrepreneurs who profit from U.S. visitors and need easy travel to import inputs from the United States. A travel warning issued in conjunction with the withdrawal of U.S. diplomats is causing a sharp drop in U.S. travelers, and new regulations abolishing individual people-to-people educational travel are channeling people into large hotels, away from private bed and breakfast rentals.  A prohibition on doing business with companies and hotels allegedly linked to the Cuban military is not pushing new clients to cuentapropistas’ businesses but instead is discouraging travel and commerce in general.  Cuban reformers are further dispirited by the perception that Washington is shifting back to the erroneous view that it can promote regime collapse by tightening the economic screws on the government, thereby reinforcing a siege mentality among senior leaders and discouraging needed economic reforms as too risky in the current environment.
  • Trump’s actions have so closely dovetailed with the agenda of Cuban hardliners that some people speculate it was opponents of reform inside the Cuban government who perpetrated the mysterious “sonic attacks” to provoke a confrontation with Washington. But there is no evidence whatsoever in support of that theory, and for anyone to sabotage Raúl Castro’s opening to Washington – one of the signal achievements of his presidency – would be to commit political (if not literal) suicide.

Implementation of Raúl Castro’s road map for economic change, embodied in the 311 lineamientos approved in 2011 and the Conceptualización of Cuba’s socialist model approved by the Communist Party congress last year, had already slowed before Trump’s sanctions due to Cuban concerns about growing income inequality during a period of poor economic performance, uncertainty about energy imports, and perhaps the 86-year-old president’s own level of energy and state of mind after the passing of his two brothers (Ramón and Fidel both died in 2016).  Widely discussed political reforms, such as the Electoral Law and the Law on Associations, that were expected months ago have yet to be unveiled.  The Trump Administration’s efforts to expedite regime change by curtailing financial flows to the government and by promoting private sector growth at the expense of state enterprises make it easy for Cuban hardliners to rally support for slowing reforms.  Ever since he launched the reform process in 2011, Castro has insisted it would move ahead, “Without haste, but without pause.”  Lately, in part because of the Trump Administration’s actions, there’s a lot more “pause” than “haste.”

The election of First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel to succeed Raúl as president seems to be a foregone conclusion of the ongoing multi-tiered election process that culminates in February, but no one outside the two men’s inner circle seems to know how or when next steps on reforms will be sequenced.  Raúl’s focus has been on creating processes and institutions for governing after he steps down, rather than achieving particular results between now and the formalities confirming Díaz-Canel.  One thing that is near-certain, however, is that the successor’s legitimacy will be determined by performance, not his surname or soaring oratory.  Tackling the really big reforms that loom ahead, such as currency and exchange rate unification, will require political will from a relatively unified leadership.  Cuba has long been adept at dealing with U.S. sanctions and pressure, so Trump’s policies are more an irritant than a threat, but the effect they have in Havana is to slow the implementation of changes that would improve the standard of living of ordinary citizens and to reduce the willingness of Cuba’s leaders to engage with Washington in ways that would serve the interests of both countries.

 December 18, 2017

Cuba: Can Official Labor Meet the Needs of Private Workers?

By Geoff Thale*

Alberto Yoan Arego Pulido / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Alberto Yoan Arego Pulido / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

As Cuba embraces a new but still undefined economic model, it’s unclear whether or how the country’s old labor laws and regulatory systems will be adapted to accommodate the interests of employees in the growing private and cooperative sectors, or in the newly autonomous state enterprises.  The trade union structure cannot play the social role it played in the past with the emergence of businesses owned by both individuals and cooperatives, a growing role for foreign investment, and increasingly decentralized state enterprises.  During a recent trip to Cuba, our research team met with representatives and staff from a range of officially recognized trade unions.  We met with the national labor federation – the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC) – and with national and local officials from some member unions, including the national president of the health care workers’ union; local trade union officials in the hotel and restaurant workers union in the tourist sector in Old Havana; and local officials representing self-employed and small-business owners who have joined the union for retail and commercial workers.  A Labor Code approved by the National Assembly in December 2013 changed some aspects of the legal framework for labor relations.  It continued to privilege the CTC as the sole labor federation, while also taking some steps to recognize the new issues that confront workers in the emerging sectors of the economy.  It established a maximum number of hours of work (44) for private-sector employees, required the self-employed or small-business owners to pay into a social security fund and ensure social protections – health care, pensions, etc. – for employees.  And it guaranteed private-sector employees seven days paid vacation per year (though less than the one month given to state-sector workers).

Our interviews, however, turned up more questions than answers.  Newly autonomous state enterprises have greater latitude in setting wages, incentives and working conditions, but it remains unclear how these decentralized enterprises will handle labor relations issues, and what kind of negotiations might take place on compliance with regulations on workplace safety and protection, wage requirements and employment opportunities.  Indeed, it is unclear how the current worker organizations will represent workers in these decentralized enterprises.  The growth of the private sector presents another challenge.  The CTC has sought to organize the self-employed into the unions in the industries in which they are functioning – the food service and restaurant union, the retail and commercial sector union, and so on – but it is unclear how the union will represent the interests of both owners of independent small businesses – cuentapropistas – and the 15 percent of “self-employed” who are actually employees in those enterprises.  Similar queries are popping up in the cooperative sector and in enterprises run as joint ventures with foreign corporations or as wholly foreign-owned companies.

Cuba’s new labor policies are clearly a work in progress, but they signal recognition that there is an emerging stratum of non-state sector employees – and that they need social protections.  It also reflects a balancing act between ensuring stable employment and benefiting from the flexibility that private sector employment models provide.  The new Labor Code requires, for example, that employers sign year-long contracts with employees while guaranteeing them access to health care, parental leave and other benefits during that period.  New challenges will emerge, especially in terms of the structures that represent the interests of these groups and advocate for them.  But for now, there appears to be progress in establishing a system of social protections for the self-employed and for their employees under the new labor code.  Concerns about the burden of compliance appear likely to be muted for at least the near term because, as it was clear to us during our visit, the self-employed and their employees are earning substantially higher incomes than are workers in the state sector.

*Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), in October led the research team’s fifth visit to Cuba examining the impact of economic change on workers.

December 9, 2014

Cuba: Change in the Wind

Three American University professors recently traveled to Cuba for research and discussions on Cuba’s reform process – called “Updating Socialism” – and the island’s relations with the United States.  Today’s entry looks at the economic changes.

Photo by: Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

In offices, shops and on the street in Havana, “change” seems to be one of the most commonly used words.  Billboards proclaim “The changes in Cuba are for more socialism” and “Updating socialism is the answer.”  But the words “reform” and – in some conversations – “privatization” pop up with significant frequency.  Party members previously reluctant to talk about change now speak of introducing “elements of capitalism” to make Cuba a “mixed economy” patterned closely after the “Vietnam model,” with its economic loosening but one-party rule.  Previous reforms have brought better, if sometimes expensive, food to many Cuban dinner tables, but the strong consensus in and outside the party is that a lot more needs to be done.

  • The law-decree on “non-agricultural cooperatives” provides a politically correct way ahead for the formation of small and medium private enterprises.  Cuentapropistas were given a prominent place in the May Day parade, and some are being nominated for office on the Communist Party slate.
  • The government is making another run at tearing down the barriers between hard-currency and peso purchases, with an eye to unifying the currency in the future.  Price tags at at least one major Havana store list prices in both convertible and national currency, at a 23-to-one conversion rate.
  • The law already allows Cubans to hire workers – a right previously given only to the state – and a draft labor law will further legalize private workers’ activities and integrate them into the economy.
  • Some 200-plus state enterprises are being put on a sink-or-swim program in which new management selected by the workers will be given a year to transform the firms into businesses closely resembling private cooperatives.
  • In January, the National Assembly will take up amendments to foreign investment laws.  Under consideration are direct foreign sales to non-state cooperatives and the direct hiring, firing, and paying of Cuban workers by foreign companies.
  • The travel reform law that goes into effect on January 14, ending the necessity for an exit visa and removing restraints on most Cubans from obtaining a passport, will also stimulate interaction with foreign countries.

The macro situation is still a mess, and the reforms have a long way to go to attain even the level of Vietnam’s prosperity.  Cuban stores sell Vietnamese cookies, not vice versa.  As the rhetoric indicates, the government – long expert at managing popular expectations – continues to emphasize continuity as the changes proceed.  But while no one is expecting a fast shift to capitalism, many middle-aged and elderly Cubans have a renewed sense of hope that life ahead will be better, which has political benefits and risks for the government.  One thing for sure is that the socialism that is being “updated” is a far cry from the communism that Cuba attempted in the 60s, 70s and 80s.