What The Future Holds For Cuba's Economy

Guests

Ted Henken, associate professor of sociology and Latin American studies, Baruch College
Enrique Pumar, chair of the sociology department, Catholic University of America
Sergio Diaz-Briquets, author of Conquering Nature: The Environmental Legacy of Socialism in Cuba

In Cuba, President Raul Castro has plans to reform the economy, but many challenges lie ahead before the country can move forward. Many of the changes are being implemented slowly because of resistance from within the Communist Party.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TOM GJELTEN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tom Gjelten, in Washington. President Raul Castro has been in power in Cuba for several years now, and he's talked a lot about his desire to reform the economy there. But progress has been slow, perhaps because of resistance to change from within the Communist Party bureaucracy, perhaps because Raul and Fidel Castro remain opposed to political change.

Some Cubans are now allowed to run private businesses and buy and sell property, but new taxes and other rules put many limits on those reforms. Meanwhile, young Cubans yearn to connect with the rest of the world. Older Cubans worry whether they'll be taken care of as they age.

So what does the future hold for Cuba? If you've been to Cuba, what signs did you see of change, or not? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, are students getting the most out of their study abroad experiences? But first, Ted Henken joins us on his smartphone from Santiago de Compostela in Spain. He's associate professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Baruch College, City University of New York. Ted, you're there, right?

TED HENKEN: I'm here. Am I there also?

GJELTEN: You are here also. Welcome to the program, Ted.

HENKEN: Fabulous to be with you again.

GJELTEN: Good. And joining us here in Studio 3A is Enrique Pumar. He's chair of the Sociology Department and associate professor of sociology at the Catholic University of America. Nice to have you with us, Enrique.

ENRIQUE PUMAR: Thank you for having me.

GJELTEN: Well, I'm going to start with Ted. And Ted, let's start with the youth population. Young Cubans are as interested in the same - are interested in the same things that young people are interested in everywhere, and that obviously includes social media. This is one of the things that you have paid a lot of attention to on your trips to Cuba. What is the current social media scene in Cuba? What's it like?

HENKEN: Well, you've got to start with the fact that Cuba, infrastructurally and ideologically, is - has extremely low penetration. Somewhere between four and 14 percent of Cubans can get on the Web, but the Web for Cubans is kind of Internet in a bottle, meaning that they - some of them have access to the Internet that is called an intranet, which is basically an Internet that stops at the borders of Cuba, and that only gives them access to sites that are Cuban-based sites.

Very few have access to the World Wide Web as we know it, and the access speeds in Cuba are extremely slow. It's basically dial-up speeds. Even though a year and a half ago there was a connection of a fiber-optic cable through Venezuela that is expected to change the speed 3,000-fold, that has yet to make any difference on the ground for Cubans.

You also have to recognize that Cubans basically can't get legal access through their household, through their home, and they don't have smartphones - smartphones like the one I'm using here to talk to you from Spain.

So given that infrastructure and those restrictions, it has been quite amazing to see a Cuban blogosphere blossom over the last five years, which has many different tendencies, many different kind of groupings, the leader of which is probably - I would say undoubtedly - Yoani Sanchez, but it has lots of colors, lots of voices that go from support for the system to fierce criticism within to fierce criticism without.

But all the voices tend to agree that this new generation demands a voice, and they want that voice to be connected through the Internet.

GJELTEN: Now, Ted, how can there be a blogosphere in Cuba when so few Cubans have access to the Internet? Is it social media as we see it, or did they find other ways of sharing their blog posts besides just posting them on the Internet and expecting people to read them there?

HENKEN: Well, in Cuba they talk about having access to Internet without having Internet, and so what they do, I would guess the most important piece of equipment in Cuba today is both a cell phone, even it's an old generation cell phone, and a flash drive.

So Cubans who have computers don't always connect or very rarely connect their computers to the Internet, but they can occasionally visit a friend or go to work or go to a hotel and download or upload things from the Internet. And so the bloggers, they use these various means: Either they go to a hotel, or they go to a job. Some of them actually have Internet access at work, although that's kind of rare, especially for these young Cubans.

And so they blog in some ways blind. So they can't often read their blogs. They can't often read the comments that people leave on their blogs, but they can post blog posts, and so this has created the kind of - a kind of - a way to have Internet without actually having access to the World Wide Web, which is quite interesting.

GJELTEN: And Ted, reading these blog posts, as you have, and visiting with bloggers as you have, what is the discussion in Cuba these days? What are the points? What are the things people are observing, talking about, arguing about?

HENKEN: Well, I'd say the first thing is - probably on many people's minds - is the promised or the floated idea to relax the restrictions on travel, to basically make it so that Cubans can travel at will. Right now they have to get permission from what they call Papa Estado, which is the daddy state, to travel abroad.

Other things that are big is that Raul Castro has introduced a lot of very serious, I would say significant, but insufficient economic reforms to turn the economy around, and so many of them are waiting, hey, when are these reforms going to affect my life, this was promised, when is it going to come through?

I think the final thing you hear a lot about is access to the Internet. The government has been completely silent for the last year and a half about what happened to the fiber-optic cable that was going to successfully connect Cuba to the Internet, to high-speed broadband Internet, and in some ways get around the blockade and the prevention that the United States has had against Cuba getting online.

So they're saying, OK, well, you can't use those things as reasons anymore. What is the reason? Why can't we go online? So those are kind of the top three things that I see. But there's also a very vigorous debate among the bloggers about the direction and the future of Cuba.

GJELTEN: Ted, you mentioned Yoani Sanchez, who as you say is the most famous blogger in Cuba, and she's been doing it for several years. I wanted to read a blog entry from her from this summer. She strikes me that she's more of a writer than, let's say, a dissident. She's at her best simply describing the challenges of daily life in Cuba.

Here she is describing the difficulty Cubans have with rain, something you'd think that Cubans living in a tropical climate would be quite used to. She says: Four drops of rain fall from the heavens and school attendance plummets, bureaucratic procedures collapse, because the functionary in charge stayed home due to the cloudburst.

Even the shops work at half speed with a simple shower. Opening and closing times become random under the simple argument that it's raining. On the other hand, clothing and things to protect ourselves from the rain are scarce. An umbrella in this city right now costs a third to a half of the average monthly salary.

But most alarming is not the problem of purchasing umbrellas or ending up wet. The worst is that from the time we are small we grow up believing that a rainfall is reason enough to be late, absent or simply cancel the whole day. We grow up to be adults who deal with the rain like something alien, incomprehensible, for which we are not prepared.

And what strikes me here, Ted, is that she takes a mundane observation about Cubans' problems with the rain and uses it to make this subtle, larger point about the passivity of the Cuban population, the sense of helplessness that really is pervasive there.

HENKEN: Yeah, I think this is classic Yoani Sanchez. Even though she's been around for five years only, I can already speak of classic Yoani style. And this style, I think, is very effective because she has blog posts that are about everyday issues that everyday people can relate to. She doesn't get lost in the theory of Marxism versus capitalism, she doesn't get lost in international battles over, you know, the Cuban Five or Alan Gross.

She talks about things that everyday people have experienced and can relate to. She also is very brief. Her posts are never longer than three paragraphs. And she's constantly updating her blog, two, three, four times a week.

I think the final thing is, I wouldn't ever call - or I wouldn't call Yoani so much a dissident as I would call her someone who is a citizen, and that in many ways is more revolutionary for Cuba because citizens have duties and responsibilities, and she's acting out those duties and responsibilities as just another citizen but a citizen who is going to make her voice heard.

She's also a citizen who's a woman, who's a mother, and who's relatively young, so she represents, or at least she speaks from experience of a whole new generation, which she calls Generation Y, the generation that's asking why.

GJELTEN: Well, stay with us, Ted. We're going to be coming back to you. I want to bring Enrique into the conversation now, Enrique Pumar from here in Washington at Catholic University, a professor of sociology there, and as a native Cuban someone who follows the scene closely and has followed it for a long time.

First in these general terms, Enrique, what do you see? Ted Henken's been talking about kind of the restlessness in the Cuban youth. Do you sense that this is a time of more widespread restlessness in Cuba?

PUMAR: I don't think so. I think that some of the triggering mechanisms to generate some widespread reforms are not present in the island today.

GJELTEN: The conditions are not there yet?

PUMAR: The conditions are not there, and usually for an uprising to take place, there has to be some triggering mechanisms, and those triggering mechanisms are not, in my opinion, visible or present in Cuban society.

GJELTEN: And what do you think are the reasons that this - as you say, the triggering mechanisms for unrest are not right there yet?

PUMAR: Well, there are obviously many reasons. One is the capacity of the government to exercise control. That is, you know, very, very effective and continues to be very effective today, and it gets very sophisticated and effective as we move forward.

Another problem is that there is such a widespread (unintelligible) in Cuba and desire for wealth and for, you know, better living that people are simply distracted, and they are concerned about everyday life, as Yoani so well documents on her blogs.

GJELTEN: And we should also point out, as both you and Ted Henken have mentioned, that there are serious political and ideological barriers to change in Cuba. Let me just quote from the Cuban constitution because Cuban people in theory have some freedom to express themselves but the constitution so restricts those freedoms as to make them almost meaningless, saying they can't be exercised, quote, "contrary to the existence and objectives of the socialist state or the decision of the Cuban people to build socialism and communism."

So you're free to express yourself in Cuba, you're free to write blog posts, you're free to talk among yourselves, as long as you don't openly and formally express opposition to the communist system.

We're talking about Cuba. If you have visited recently, have you seen any signs of change? Our number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll be back in just a minute. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GJELTEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Tom Gjelten.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MI TIERRA")

GLORIA ESTEFAN: (Singing in Spanish)

GJELTEN: In Cuba, musicians who left the country and spoke out against the Castro government have long been unofficially blacklisted: They weren't heard on Cuban radios. Among them, Gloria Estefan, whose song "Mi Tierra" we're hearing a bit from now.

Salsa star Celia Cruz and jazz man Bebo Valdes also made the list. Now some of Cuba's radio stations tell the BBC that the ban is over, one small sign that things may be changing in Cuba. The ruling Communist Party there has tightly controlled culture, commerce and services.

If you have visited Cuba recently, did you see any evidence things are changing, or did you not? Tell us what you saw, 800-989-8255. Or you can email us, talk@npr.org. My guests are Ted Henken, he's an associate professor at Baruch College, and Enrique Pumar, sociology department chair at the Catholic University of America.

And Enrique, sticking with you, we talked at the beginning of the program about some of the reforms that Raul Castro has introduced or said he wants to implement, and yet progress in implementing even the things that Raul Castro has promised has been very slow. How do you explain why it has been so hard, apparently, for the Cuban leadership to do the things they've promised to do?

PUMAR: Well, Tom, before I answer your question, I'd like to make two brief points. The first is that the Cuban people find - in the midst of these restrictions, they find very clever ways to communicate with each other. For example, if you listen to a conversation in Cuba, they usually use vague language.

They will say the situation, (foreign language spoken), to talk about the conditions of Cuba. Of course the situation is not defined. People can interpret the meaning of the word in many ways, but Cubans know what the situation means.

So the second point I wanted to talk about is that many of what we are calling here reforms are simply the realization of practices that already existed and are in place for many years.

GJELTEN: Things that were done informally...

PUMAR: Informally...

GJELTEN: Are now legal.

PUMAR: Correct. I was in Cuba in 1992, and people could listen to Gloria Estefan in their houses without any problem or any reprisals. Now they can listen to it on the radio.

GJELTEN: So they played CDs.

PUMAR: Exactly, exactly. Now to answer your question, I wrote a paper a while back in which I argue that, you know, for - if you compare Cuba with Vietnam and China, the pace of reforms in Cuba is more timid, more slow as you have indicated, and I attributed that to the fact that the ruling coalition in China and Vietnam is basically formed by new generations of leaders that have not experienced the revolution, whereas in Cuba, the revolutionary leaders are still in control of the government.

For obvious reasons, they're not going to implement reforms that backfire or that, you know, they're going to - would undo what they have tried to do for the rest of their lives.

GJELTEN: But Raul Castro is 81 years old, and he is claiming that he wants to do things that are new.

PUMAR: Exactly, he's claiming that he wants to do things, but whether he has done some of the things that he claimed is a different story. In 2011, Raul Castro said that he was going to undertake structural reforms. We are still waiting for them.

GJELTEN: We are, and we're trying to figure out why it's so hard to implement those reforms. I want to bring in some callers to our conversation now. First, Yail(ph) joins us from South Bend, Indiana. Thanks for the call, Yail.

YAIL: Hi, thank you for taking my call. I spent the fall of Cuba at the International Theater Festival, and I just want to make sure we include in this discussion that artists are finding ways, some that have to do with the Internet but some that do not, to get their work out of Cuba, whether they happen to be playwrights, directors, actors, you know, visual artists.

They're finding ways to actually get their work seen abroad and heard abroad, and a lot of what they are creating about is daily life in Cuba.

GJELTEN: Well, one of the points Enrique Pumar just made is that Cubans have learned to be ingenious about sort of getting around the restrictions and the rules, and they can be very inventive in that regard, can't they Yail?

YAIL: Absolutely, and I think it's also very difficult to say what happens onstage versus what happens in a text. So what bodies are doing to make their point very often can get past someone looking at just the script and deciding what it means.

GJELTEN: We assume that these communist societies are stultifying and that they really deaden the creative output, and yet tell us what kind of creative spirit you found in the artistic community there.

YAIL: The creative spirit in Cuba is burgeoning, and it's everywhere. It's in Havana, it's in Santiago de Cuba, it's all across the island. Because I think there is the sense that things need to be said, and they need to be said creatively because we can't necessarily say them directly, so they're finding ways to say exactly what they want to say without quite saying it and in ways that a Cuban audience laughs at, understands, can see.

It's exactly what Enrique was saying about people saying (foreign language spoken) and trying to actually know who understands what they're saying without actually directly making a critique.

GJELTEN: Really interesting points.

YAIL: And I think it's an important way of dealing with it.

GJELTEN: Thank you very much, Yail. I want to ask Ted Henken, who's with us on his smartphone in Santigo de Compostela, Spain, if this corresponds to your sense, as well, Ted.

HENKEN: Absolutely, just the ways that Cubans make old cars work or are able to post on the Internet, they do through humor, through art, either painting or dance or music. I would say to me that there are some really interesting groups. One group I would point out specifically is a kind of poetry, hip-hop fusion group we just had visit New York City. They were on a three-month tour.

They're called Omni Zona Franca, and they do things that, you know, are kind of, you would say, progressive creativity, but more in line with Gandhi than with Che Guevara. So they have these kind of new or old heroes and a new vision that they're trying to project and a different language that's, you know, quite different than a hard-line, you know, political language you hear out of Miami or that you have heard out of Miami for the past generation but also the hard-line, you know, political language you hear out of Havana.

The musicians also are doing this, and hip-hop, a group that's really famous in Cuba although not always given space to perform is called Los Aldeanos, which is The Villagers. They're actually on tour right now in Argentina.

So there's a lot going on in that world that is worth listening to, and again, read between the lines, but they're increasingly saying things in the lines.

GJELTEN: Well, we've been talking here mostly about sort of the younger generation of Cubans, but what about all the rest of the Cubans? We're joined now by demographer Sergio Diaz-Briquets. He joins us from his home in Lorton, Virginia. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Sergio.

SERGIO DIAZ-BRIQUETS: Nice to be here.

GJELTEN: And the - so as I said, we've been focusing on the young population in Cuba. Well, what's the structure of the whole population? Where do young people fit in, and what's going on with sort of the demographic trends in the Cuban population?

DIAZ-BRIQUETS: Well, that's a rather momentous set of developments has been taking place since the 1970s, when following the baby boom, you know, induced by complex causes immediately after the revolution, fertility trends began to turn. And by the late '70s, the population growth rate, the fertility rate, was below replacement.

This has evolved ever since then, up to now, when the Cuban population actually began to contract. It's not growing anymore largely because of the below-replacement fertility, but also a big component of that is immigration. Since about 1994, when the Balseros situation took place and the U.S. and Cuba entered into a migration agreement, more than half-a-million have left just, you know, to the United States and a certain amount to other countries, as well.

Actually, the immigration since 1994 in overall numbers has been greater than all the immigration since 1959, the year the revolution took over, until then. So...

GJELTEN: So what we have then, Sergio, to sum this up, is a situation where so many people are leaving Cuba, meanwhile not enough Cubans are being born because the fertility rate is going down, so that, one, the population is declining. And what about the people - the structure of the Cuban population? I assume that there are more and more old people, if the fertility rate is going down.

DIAZ-BRIQUETS: Well, exactly. This is what is happening in the countries around the world where the aging phenomenon is taking place. You know, we've heard for the longest time about Japan, but we also know about Europe. You know, and in Cuba it's getting, you know, just as bad. And in a few years, the situation is -you know, the composition of the population is already very old.

I think what makes Cuba different from most countries, and this is a very important issue, is that as far as I know, Cuba is the only country experiencing such a population aging that is encouraging immigration. If you look at Europe, for example, countries that are losing population are more interested in bringing people in rather than getting them out.

GJELTEN: Well, who immigrates from Cuba? Are they mostly young people? So does that aggravate the problem?

DIAZ-BRIQUETS: Well, that's a - you know, any study you do on immigration, normally, the people who leave are the youngest, the most - the more ambitious, the ones with lesser ties at home. So, obviously, it aggravates the situation further because those are the people who not only would contribute to the economy but would also have children of their own. So the children of these emigrants instead of being born in Cuba are being born in the United States or will be born in the United States.

GJELTEN: Well, Sergio Diaz-Briquets, thank you very much for joining us. He is an independent consultant. He joined us via Skype from his home in Lorton, Virginia, and a noted demographer. Thanks for coming on TALK OF THE NATION and giving us that little update on the demographic structure in Cuba, Sergio.

DIAZ-BRIQUETS: Thank you.

GJELTEN: I want to go now to a couple of emails. Melanie(ph) in West Chester, Pennsylvania, says she was in Cuba last fall, and she became aware of how important the tourist economy is there where educated people work as guides, taxi drivers, et cetera, in order to earn tips, which are worth considerably more than Cuban pesos. She also heard, of course, a lot about the effects of the U.S. embargo on the economy. Enrique, give us a little sort of very quick report on the Cuban economy right now.

How important are these jobs in the tourism sector, and what is the effect? What has the U.S. embargo done to economic output in Cuba? I know you're not an economist, but we're talking in layman terms here, anyway.

PUMAR: OK. The tourism is very important for the Cuban economy. The sugar industry is so practically gone for all intents and purposes. So tourism and remittances are the main source of cash in Cuba. However, the influx of tourism is not without a social and political cost. As more people get to know foreigners, they, obviously, get more hungry for reforms, and they have - they get more hungry to travel abroad and, you know, they get more interested in change. So it's very, very - it's a very risky business.

Now, with regard to the embargo, the - Cuba is one of those countries that doesn't have relation with the United States, of course, but we shouldn't forget that it has relations with many other countries. And there are some limited economic transactions, cash transactions between the United States and Cuba. The problem is that the Cuban government doesn't have enough cash to conduct many of these transactions. So the embargo is a limiting factor. It also - it has also served as an escape for the leadership because the leadership blames everything on the embargo.

GJELTEN: Right. Enrique Pumar is a sociologist at Catholic University of America here in Washington, D.C. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And I want to go back to our listeners now. First of all, George, in Baton Rouge, says he just returned from a 10-day trip to Cuba, his second visit this year. He interacted with many youth who are, he says, hungry for American culture. We were asked about Justin Bieber in a small rural community church.

And Charles is on the line, also with a comment from his own experience in Cuba from Charlotte, North Carolina. Charles, you're on the air. Thanks for calling us.

CHARLES: Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to make a point that, I think, it's very important to also look at the pulse of the spiritual life that's going on in Cuba. I know in 1995 Castro was seen on national TV with the pope, and after that visit, it's like the closet has opened up in regards to expression of their spiritual life, which they felt had been closed off for so many years. And I know now that there are 30,000 house churches in that population of 11 million people on that island.

GJELTEN: What do you mean house churches, Charles?

CHARLES: Well, it's where they have not been fulfilled in the Catholic Church, and you have a number of denominational churches there now that, because they can't build their own buildings, many of the pastors opened their homes, and they express their freedom of religion, and they get to do that freely with the government's permission. And since '95, the church nondenominational and denominational has grown even in terms of what they would call revival.

GJELTEN: That is a very interesting statistic, and that could be another source of tension developing in Cuba or at least sort of this spirit that we're talking about. I have also here an email from Nina(ph) in Berkeley, California, who says that she was in Cuba this past April on vacation. Here's what she said. She says Cuba is a land of contradictions. There are two currencies, places that Cubans can go to and places only for tourists, 99 percent literacy but no books, free health care but no medication. With the opening of Casa Particulares - and that's like a B&B - and family restaurants, tourists can go and pay in convertible currency, but Cubans can't go because they don't have access to convertible currency.

And, Ted, before we let you go, these are issues I'm sure that young Cubans and Cuban bloggers raise in their writings.

HENKEN: Absolutely. I think that the callers and the people who are sending you comments are exactly right. We've got more Americans traveling to Cuba, are getting the pulse. I think that that's a good thing because it will expose Cubans to outside ideas, allow dialogues to take place, spiritual exchanges. I was even given a Bible on one of my trips to Cuba by some friends who wanted me to come back to the church that I was - that I left when I was younger. So I think that - and the young people are talking about this on their blogs. They're talking about it to foreign visitors. And so I think the engagement idea that Obama has pushed is a good one. I think he can do more in that spirit. I think a lot of this stuff is controlled by governments, but there's a big portion that is people to people. It happens between, you know, between individuals, between members of churches, between people who are studying culture. And I think that a lot can happen that's positive in that area.

GJELTEN: But we don't have time to really develop this much further. But Enrique, Pumar, who's been my guest here in the studio, has also pointed out some of the serious obstacles to change in Cuba, and that's going to limit what can happen. He's chair of the sociology department at the Catholic University of America. Ted Henken, who you just heard from, is the new president of Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy. He joined us via smartphone from Spain.

Now, after a short break, we're going to take a look at study abroad programs. If you studied abroad, we want to hear from you. What would you do differently if you had to do it again? Call us: 800-989-8255. Send us an email: talk@npr.org. We'll be right back. I'm Tom Gjelten. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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