Cuban President Raúl Castro has announced economic reforms over the last several years, but have Cubans felt improvements in their lives as a result of these reforms or do they expect positive results from them in the future? Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is no.
Freedom House released a special report last week that details in-depth interviews with 120 Cubans living in six provinces in Cuba. The report, Real Change for Cuba? How Citizens View Their Country’s Future, reveals that while there are indications of limited economic change, most Cubans have neither felt nor believe they will feel noticeable improvements in their personal situation as a result of Castro’s reforms.
Since 2008, Castro’s announcements and reforms have been heralded by some as the beginning of a new Cuba, an economic liberalization that will modernize Cuban society from its communist roots. Others have suggested the announcements are hollow promises and the reforms will only solidify Castro’s grip on Cuba’s political hierarchy. But what do Cubans think and what have they experienced since Castro took power from his ailing brother in 2006?
Freedom House’s report shows that Cubans remain generally pessimistic about reforms and skeptical about their future, in part, because they have lived through other “reforms” in the last 20 years. Cubans endured the “Special Period” after the fall of the Soviet Union, when economic changes stemming from the loss of Soviet subsidies and supplies resulted in significant hardships for Cubans. They have seen restrictions relaxed on private enterprises only to watch the government later tighten the restrictions. Little surprise, then, that Cubans seem to take on an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude toward the most recent round of reforms.
The report is full of personal stories and opinions on the reforms. A poet in Havana explained his skepticism, “This country can’t take another Special Period, not that the Special Period ever really ended!”
A handicraft vendor from Santa Clara angrily declared: “They’re going to throw us out of our jobs, and then on top of that they’re cheating the elderly (by eliminating assistance programs). I have to take care of my in-laws. With what? It can’t be like this.”
And, a university student in Pinar del Rio pointed out that “we can’t all be cuentapropistas (private business owners), and those who do have a business will have to earn a lot to be able to pay for the licenses.”
The report also covers a sampling of Communist Party affiliates who believe the reforms will be successful, as well as some Cubans who are cautiously optimistic the reforms will bring positive change. However, the overwhelming impression is of a Cuban populace that is anxious about the future, worried about making ends meet, and has little reason to believe the reforms will personally benefit them.
These stories provide insights into why Cubans have adopted a wait-and-see attitude towards Castro’s reforms. Cubans feel they have little control over government policy and do not have the right to freely express their opinions. “Everything is in the hands of the government, there’s not much to do,” said an information technology manager in Santiago. “Everyone watches you here,” stated a casa particular owner in Villa Clara. “If it’s not the government, it’s the neighbors who immediately alert the authorities when someone arrives.”
Youth in particular are apathetic toward the future, are not involved in politics and tend to focus on how to fortify their personal situation. Meanwhile, the severe restrictions have left some Cubans feeling bitter about their current plight — alone and isolated without permission to move around the country or even outside the country.
It is evident that, even with the moderate levels of optimism regarding the reforms, Cubans are skeptical that they will benefit personally from the reforms. As a young respondent in Havana put it, “Nothing really changes in Cuba. The country [is] .?.?. the same as it’s always been and, the way it looks, the same as it will always be.”
Matthew Brady is program director at Freedom House, and Kira Ribar is a program officer.