I am having dinner with Fernando Ravsberg, one of the most respected foreign journalists in Cuba. A Uruguayan, his blog, Cartas desde Cuba, is widely read by those Cubans who have access to the internet, and his opinions matter, something rare in a country where you generally have to be part of the system to be heard. He seems to be quite annoyed with people who come from solidarity movements in the West in search of a utopian Socialist paradise. He has lived in Cuba for almost 25 years and meets, on a regular basis, people from Switzerland or Britain who are hoping to find poetic purity, olive green uniforms and barbudos everywhere. Ah, and an equalitarian society. He has always tried to dispel this misconception but hits brick walls. “You don’t love Cuba” he has been told, because he does not toe the official line. He replies that you do not choose to live in a country for a quarter of a century if you do not love the place. “The problem with those people is that they do not come to Cuba to see what is really happening, they come to see what they want to see” and that has nothing to do with real life.
We met in a restaurant near the promenade, a place that would not look out of place in Paris or London: impeccable taste in decoration, all sorts of well-prepared food, white table cloths and helpful waiters. We talked about Cuba’s economic reforms. He believes that Cuba is going the right way but still lacks the necessary infrastructure to attract foreign investment. “Do you know what the main source of foreign income is here?” he asks, guessing that we haven’t got the slightest idea. “Doctors”, he tells us. Indeed, medical services offered by Cuba generate a substantial income, more than tourism, mining and remittances put together. Countries that benefit from the solidarity Fidel offered for free in the past (by sending doctors to Angola or Mozambique, for instance), are starting to pay for the privilege.
He tells us an anecdote. The Cuban government told a delegation from some of the countries who had benefited from Cuba’s hospitals and doctors, that maybe it was time for them to make a financial contribution, “because Cuba can no longer cope”. “But we always wanted to pay”, protested one foreign official. “It was Fidel who didn´t want the money”.
Things are changing though. Although their doctors have, perhaps unintentionally, become their main source of income for Cuba, the government wants to start moving things forward. And many American business people seem to agree. A few days ago, the head of the US Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Donohue, visited Cuba and gave a lecture at Havana University. Without entering the minefield of Cuba-US politics, Donohue suggested that it was time to lift restrictions on American investments in Cuba. Needless to say, Donohue`s visit to the island and his meeting with Raul Castro were widely reported in the Cuban media.
The Cuban government has approved a law to regulate foreign investment. The new law lifts some of the old restrictions and provides greater freedom to invest. But the government still reserves the right to control vital elements related to national security.
At the same time, Cuba is looking for ways to unify its two currencies. At the moment, there are two kinds of pesos, the nacional and the CUC. The nacional is the one used by Cubans for their normal transactions. The CUC is the one used by foreigners. Officially, for 1 US dollar one gets 0.87 CUC. The nacional does not have an exchange rate because it cannot be used outside the domestic Cuban system. This creates a black market where Cubans can easily buy dollars at a rate of 0.95 CUC. Now the government wants to unify both currencies. They do not know how they will do that, but are working on it.
Economic changes is always traumatic in a centralised, heavily controlled system like the Cuban one. With a huge state apparatus – now somewhat reduced by the reforms – which is quite inefficient in many ways, many Cubans are going to have to adapt to the new era. Cubans have a saying: “We pretend that we work and the state pretends that it pays us.” That has to change, Gilberto, a philosopher and economist, tells me. “The problem is that we have a paternalistic state and many people have a sense of entitlement because of that”, he says, speaking to camera. “They believe that they have the right to get what they get and that is not possible”, he quips. What about the equalitarian society Socialism is supposed to have created, I ask. “A fair society is not an equalitarian one” he tells me, “and we want a fair society”.
Humberto, another economist agrees. I commented that it was pretty incredible that Cuba’s main source of hard currency is doctors, a service and not an industry. “The problem is that we do not have infrastructure”, he says, and for as long as this is the case, Cuba will have to rely on those medical professionals
Some people who left Cuba after the 1959 revolutionary victory are starting to smell opportunities. Recently, Alfonso Fanjul, a Cuban sugar tycoon who left the island with his family after the government expropriated his properties and businesses, said that he was ready to return to Cuba to invest. “He does not want to be left behind”, says one of the economists. He is, after all, a businessman.
Cuba is slowly changing, sometimes very slowly indeed. One still meets incompetent bureaucrats who take a week to do what usually takes an hour. Internet services are expensive, slow and, in many cases, impossible to access. And yet, there is an emerging middle class which travels regularly to the USA (the new immigration reforms make this possible) and benefits from private business: restaurants, private accommodation, bars. They do not drive the old American cars that delight the lovers of rolling antiques, but modern European cars. There are now shopping malls where foreign visitors and locals mingle without restrictions.
And yet, on the walls of new buildings and blocks of flats hang huge posters of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, looking down from their bricked heights, as if they are checking that everything is still as it should be. Just in case.
Programme from Hispan TV on the Cuban economy (in Spanish)