As Cuba reforms, the invisible hand is bearing gifts - and new problems

As Cuba reforms, the invisible hand is bearing gifts - and new problems

Well-maintained cars like these are now private reserves of wealth for their owners. Photo: Ben Osborn for Mercy Corps
Well-maintained cars like these are now private reserves of wealth for their owners. Photo: Ben Osborn for Mercy Corps

Starting today, Cubans can buy and sell property for the first time in over 50 years. Yet while most are excited to escape the cage of government restrictions, others fear being kicked out in the cold.

Many Cubans haven't paid for rent, health care or education since 1959, when Fidel Castro seized power and began nationalizing private property in one of the staunchest socialist experiments in world history. While the results were far from perfect, many of Cuba’s poorest undeniably benefited.

During the heyday of the Revolution, most Cubans had job security and guaranteed food rations. The Cuban government tinkered with novel programs and ideas, and where those programs failed, the Soviet Union often stepped in, checkbook in hand, to balance the books. While Cuba severely limited its citizens’ rights and freedoms, it also ensured a basic economic safety net below which no Cuban would fall. For the most part, success was more a function of loyalty to the government than it was a measure of personal skills. This is the government that many older Cubans identify with.

But after decades of stuttering progress, the fall of the Soviet Union brought an end to the heavily subsidized years of Cuban socialism, and a so-called “Special Period” of austerity began. For most young Cubans, these years of recession and stagnation are all they know of the Castro regime.

So the reforms of the past five years are evoking mixed emotions among Cubans. The loosening restrictions on property and trade will finally allow a burgeoning entrepreneurial class to openly improve their lives. Cubans can now buy and sell homes and cars, private businesses can be established, and skilled workers can offer their services freelance. These reforms are part of an effort by the government to wean its bloated public sector off of government assistance and flood the private sector with cash.

Suddenly, Cubans can earn more on their own initiative. As the New York Times reports, the iconic and ancient cars that sputter through Havana can be traded or sold, transforming old clunkers into a private reserve of wealth.

But as Cubans are given their own paddles to navigate capitalism, some fear the loss of the government life jacket. "What happens if I sell my home and then I can’t find another one to buy? Where do I sleep?” laments Félix Méndez, a 47-year-old hospital technician quoted in the New York Times.

Another risk inherent to the reforms is a widening rift between the richest and poorest Cubans. People can now sell their homes and move elsewhere. This newfound mobility is expected to lead to segregation, as wealthier Cubans (and their money) leave poorer neighborhoods in search of better living. "Thousands of Cubans have been waiting for this signal, like runners crouched at the starting line waiting for the gun to go off,” writes Yoani Sánchez, a prominent Cuban dissident blogger. When the gun goes off, existing inequality will likely be increased as money is drained from some neighborhoods without the government around to replenish it.

Spectators on both sides of the ideological aisle call the reforms necessary. Capitalism's enthusiasts see the changes as inevitable; the end of an anachronism. Those farther to the left view the reforms as necessary concessions amidst tough times; concessions to ensure the survival and restoration of one the few remaining self-proclaimed socialist regimes in the world.

As Ms. Sánchez writes, “a house, for 40 years an anchor, will become a set of wings.” It remains to be seen, though, who will sink and who will fly.

Ben Osborn is a 2011 graduate of Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. Read his other contributions to Global Envision.

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