Troubled Cuba Mulls 'A Different Kind' Of Socialism

Cuba President Raul Castro i i

hide captionCuba's President Raul Castro (from right), Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura and Revolutionary Commander Ramiro Valdes attend a rally marking Cuba's Day of National Rebellion in Holguin, Cuba, on July 26.

Javier Galeano/AP
Cuba President Raul Castro

Cuba's President Raul Castro (from right), Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura and Revolutionary Commander Ramiro Valdes attend a rally marking Cuba's Day of National Rebellion in Holguin, Cuba, on July 26.

Javier Galeano/AP

Battered by a series of hurricanes, the global economic crisis and an inefficient communist system, Cuba's state-run economy is facing its greatest test since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Raul Castro, who officially took over as president from his ailing brother, Fidel, last year, launched his own quiet revolution on the island. He is attempting to streamline, decentralize and revive the economy.

But Cuba has been forced to cut spending on marquee social programs such as health care and education.

As the island's transportation infrastructure crumbles, horse-drawn carts serve as taxis in many parts of the country. With gas at just over $4 a gallon and spare parts in short supply, many Cubans have turned to bicycles, horses and ox carts to get around.

Cuba's trade deficit has soared. The government has a liquidity crisis. The 47-year-old U.S. embargo still hampers trade with its closest neighbor.

And adding to Cuba's problems, the island was hit last year by three hurricanes.

But none of that seems to bother Adele Silva, who lives in the eastern city of Holguin.

Satisfied With The Welfare State

Much of the roof on her house has collapsed, and gravel is piled in the living room. A flock of chickens resides just off the kitchen.

Yet Silva says she's happy. "Because I enjoy any situation, and I take a positive attitude. In Cuba, I always feel protected," she says.

Last year, Hurricane Ike ripped the roof off the back of Silva's house. Just recently, the government brought her bags of sand, bricks and a truckload of gravel, which she'll use to repair her building.

Despite the delay, she says the Cuban state looks after its people.

"Here, there's social security. It's very special," she says. "In Cuba, everyone has social security. It's one of the principles of the revolution."

She says the state provides her with food, clothes and basic furniture. In Cuba, even the poor send their children to college, she notes, which isn't the case in many other Latin American countries.

Asked if Cuba might change to capitalism, she says flatly that Cubans don't want that. Silva says she is proud of the socialist country built under Fidel Castro, the ailing leader who transferred power to his brother in 2006 and was replaced by Raul in 2008 elections.

Rice farmer Roberto Barada Perez dries his crop i i

hide captionIn Cuba's Camaguey province, rice farmer Roberto Barada Perez (center) dries his crop on the main road. Barada, 44, got two parcels of land totaling 65 acres under a new program to redistribute state-owned land on the communist island to private farmers.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
Rice farmer Roberto Barada Perez dries his crop

In Cuba's Camaguey province, rice farmer Roberto Barada Perez (center) dries his crop on the main road. Barada, 44, got two parcels of land totaling 65 acres under a new program to redistribute state-owned land on the communist island to private farmers.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

But in a recent speech in Holguin, Raul Castro said Cuba's woes won't be solved by shouting patriotic slogans or denouncing the United States. He called on Cubans to return to the land and revitalize the island's faltering farms.

A Surplus Of Problems

"These have been difficult and arduous months from one end of the country to the other," he said.

Cuba doesn't have a surplus of anything "except problems," he added.

According to Raul, half of Cuba's arable land is sitting idle or underutilized while food imports increasingly drain the public treasury. In an effort to revive agriculture, Raul launched a program that has given out more than 1.5 million acres of fallow state-owned land to private farmers and small cooperatives.

The economy has slowed so much that many of Cuba's main roads are almost empty. In the Camaguey province, rice farmer Roberto Barada Perez is using one lane of a two-lane highway to dry his crop.

He received about 65 acres last year under Raul Castro's land redistribution program and planted all of it with rice.

"It's a dignified way to support my family," Barada says. "Because, really, there aren't other ways to help my family financially."

Barada is only allowed to sell the rice to the government at a price set by the state, which he complains is too low. Despite this, he says he hopes to get one more plot in the coming months.

As president, Raul Castro has also allowed Cubans to buy computers and cell phones and to stay in tourist hotels. And he's suggested that pay should be linked to performance.

'A Different Kind Of Socialism'

Rafael Hernandez, editor of the quarterly journal Temas in Havana, says Raul Castro is attempting to transform the Cuban state.

"Cuba is in the middle of transition from a kind of socialism to a different kind of socialism," Hernandez says.

Hernandez predicts that that transition won't follow a Russian or Chinese model, but a uniquely Cuban model.

"Cuban socialism is sick of hypercentralization, and everything is related to that. That is, to me, the monster to kill," he says.

Hernandez says Raul is attempting to decentralize the only communist state in the Americas by granting greater autonomy to individual government ministries.

Across Cuba, there are people desperate for U.S.-style capitalism to come rushing back in. But Hernandez says he doesn't think they are the majority, and they certainly are not in power.

Most Cubans want a socialist state, he says. They just want one that functions far better than the one they currently have.

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