Raúl Castro’s Warning
This is the time of year when the world looks forward, no matter what the disappointments of the past. It’s called hope. But Raúl Castro is warning Cubans who are hoping to build wealth in the newly “reformed” economy not to waste their time. The state, he said in a Christmas-week speech to the national assembly, is not about let that happen.
It was only two years ago that Castro boasted a loosening of the rules in the state-owned economy. He did it under duress: The bankrupt government couldn’t continue to pretend to pay people who pretend to work. The dictatorship forecast that it had to unload more than a half-million Cubans from state payrolls. To ease the pain and potential social unrest, Castro pronounced 178 trades “legal.”
A gullible foreign press swooned over Castro’s words as if he was getting ready to admit the defeat of the 55-year-old communist revolution and let the market take over. Yet it was easy to see, by the list of the approved “professions,” that Castro’s exercise in reform was nothing but a bad joke. Cuban writer José Azel subtly pointed out the absurdity of it all by naming a few of the newly legalized businesses in a January 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed: “Trade No. 23 will be the purchase and sale of used books. Trade 29 is an attendant of public bathrooms (presumably for tips); 34 is a palm-tree pruner (apparently other trees will still be pruned by the state). Trade 49 is covering buttons with fabric; 61 is shining shoes; 62 is cleaning spark plugs; 69 is a typist; 110 is the repair of box springs (not to be confused with 116, the repair of mattresses). Trade 124 is umbrella repairs; 125 is refilling of disposable cigarette lighters; 150 is fortune-telling with tarot cards; 156 is being a dandy (technical definition unknown, maybe a male escort?); 158 is peeling natural fruit (separate from 142, selling fruit in kiosks).”
The regime undoubtedly expected that the narrowness of the list of approved activities would contain ambitious upstarts. No such luck. The whiff of oxygen was enough to stir the animal spirits on the island and the central planners were, as they always are, caught off guard by the spontaneity of the market. In December the Associated Press reported that “the government has banned the resale of imported hardware and clothes and cracked down on unlicensed private videogame and movie salons.” It has also sharply hiked in license fees for motor-bike taxi drivers.
Castro’s remarks before the assembly shed light on his reasoning. The regime, he said, is not about let “private business people” go around “creating an environment of impunity and stimulating the accelerated growth of activities that were never authorized for certain occupations.” Illegal activities like “competing excessively with state enterprises,” will not be tolerated, he warned. In other words, Cuban poverty is here to stay.
In a world full of dynamism and uncertainty, isn’t it comforting to know that some things never change?