Tom Fawthrop - Aljazeera

In 2010, Cuba marks the 51st anniversary of the revolution that transformed the Caribbean nation from a sleazy centre of casinos run by US gangsters, to the only outpost of socialism in the Americas – defying US superpower only 90 miles from the shores of Florida.

That Cuba’s defiant brand of socialism has survived so many upheavals in the world and a crippling US trade embargo has surprised most observers.

During the last 50 years the small island nation has impressed with its achievements in education and in creating a comprehensive and free public health system staffed by excellent doctors.

But its citizens are growing increasingly impatient with hard times, suffocating bureaucracy and the badly-run state economy.

Public debate

In 2006, ill health forced Fidel Castro to hand power over to his younger brother, Raul.

The new Cuban president has been encouraging a wide-ranging public debate on how to fix and reform the ailing economy, without abandoning some of the socialist ideals and principles that inspired the revolution.

He has also exhorted citizens to engage in a national dialogue on the future of the country’s socialism under the control of the ruling Communist party.

International media usually reports that Raul Castro, suitably impressed by his visit to China and Vietnam where major economic reforms were introduced long ago, favours a similar acceptance of a market-based economy.

However Mariela Castro, the president’s daughter, does not believe Cubans want to adopt a foreign model.

"Cuban people are asking for a much more sustainable socialism, not a return to capitalism," she explains. "They want a permanent system of consultation, better mechanisms of participation to work for a democratic socialism."

Hard times

Many observers predicted that the revolution was doomed when the Soviet bloc collapsed; by 1991 Cuba had lost 80 per cent of its trading partners and 100 per cent of all economic aid.

At the same time Washington tightened the screws on its economic embargo hoping to precipitate the regime’s collapse.

But, against the odds the revolution survived.

However, the country is now reeling from devastating hurricanes, the US trade embargo – which has been renewed under the Obama administration – and the global economic crisis, with a reported $2bn hard currency trade deficit incurred since 2007.

After a period of recovery during the last decade, hard times and belt-tightening beckon again.

Raul Castro is calling for an overhaul of the system to cut back on imports, and public spending while calling on Cubans to improve efficiency, grow more food and increase productivity.

He has already scrapped free canteen lunches for all state employees as a cost-saving measure.

Soviet legacy

Mariela, who heads the country’s national sex education commission and is a prominent gay and lesbian rights activist, is well-known as an independent voice within Havana’s ruling elite.

"The Soviet legacy is a problem," she says, referring to the alliance Cuba forged with the former Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War.

Inside the Communist leadership, she says "some segments think in very rigid and dogmatic ways".

"Yes they have blocked reforms, [but] they coexist with sectors searching for new ideas and methods."

Rafael Hernandez, the editor of Temas, a critical quarterly journal, says: "The control by the central bureaucracy, this is stupid and it can’t run things efficiently."

But like many Cuban intellectuals, Hernandez rejects the simple dichotomy of Western analysts that the only alternative to the state-run command economy is to turn towards capitalism and switch to a market economy.

He argues that there is a place for the market but that "we need socialism with markets not market socialism – more democracy in workplaces, more market mechanisms with social control, otherwise the market will swallow the system".

The world food crisis which has pushed up prices for the import of food has drastically hit Cuba, which imports 70 per cent of its food and fuel.

It is a strange contradiction that the island that has become one of the top 10 countries in biotechnology – exporting vaccines and cutting edge cancer treatments around the world – is strangely unable to feed its 11.5 million population from its own agricultural production.

But despite attempts to liberalise agriculture, provide more land to cooperatives and private farmers, overall agricultural yields are still low and even these modest reforms are stymied by bottlenecks in supply and distribution.

The new leadership is under increasing pressure to deliver higher living standards at a time when revenues have dropped in several sectors, including tourism and exports of nickel.

Driving Cuba’s economy

Future prospects pinned to Cuba’s medical resources are, however, very positive, with biotechnology and vaccine production pharmaceutical exports and medical services contributing an estimated 40 per cent or more to hard currency earnings.

Cuba has international medical teams working in 70 countries, receiving just food and basic accommodation from their host countries

However, in the case of oil-rich Venezuela and a few others, there are reciprocal benefits.

In return for more than 20,000 doctors and other health workers, Venezuela provides subsidised oil and cash payments for the doctors, which has helped to keep Cuba afloat and also sustain their massive commitment to serving the health needs of the poor in the developing world. Although the exact figures have never been made public the total value to the Cuban economy, including the oil supplies and all medical sales and services, is estimated at nearly $2bn.      

Cuba’s biotech industry has just launched CimaVaX EGF, a lung cancer vaccine, and Germany, Malaysia, China and India have all signed joint venture agreements for the marketing and use of Cuban cancer treatments.

In the future, Cuba potentially stands to earn billions from their medical expertise.

"If we get access to the Western market, then this hi-tech sector could become the locomotive of the entire Cuban economy," says Dr Rolando Perez, a research director at Cuba’s Centre of Molecular Immunology (CIM).

But with such vaccines taking many years to pass rigorous international clinical trials, it is doubtful that Cuba can wait for this breakthrough.

In the ongoing debate engaging the nation, it is clear that the small group of US- supported dissidents have no monopoly on criticising policy failures and blunders by the state.

But in demanding political change, economic reform and more participatory socialism, the body of critics attacking the bureaucracy, seeks to enhance the socialist system, not to dismantle it.

The big question for Cuba in 2010 is can the clamour of ordinary Cubans, intellectuals and, above all, the youth of the nation, effect such novel changes?

Hernandez says: "Now the only way to rule Cuba is to allow power to the people."


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