HAVANA, Cuba — Complaining about the government is a national pastime on this communist-run island, but it’s a tradition typically practiced indoors.
Decades of state media control and harsh punishment for dissent have conditioned Cubans to vent their political frustrations in private, and rarely outside the presence of trusted company.
So when Cubans were asked recently to air their grievances at a local community meeting in Havana, the criticism stuck mostly to earthly affairs: potholes, garbage collection and the high costs of fruits and vegetables at the nearby produce market.
“The vendors there are criminals,” said one woman, to nods of agreement.
It didn’t seem like the kind of deep-searching probe of the nation’s problems that President Raul Castro solicited when he called for a national dialogue on the future of the country’s socialist system in an August speech.
Since then, authorities have set up discussions at universities, government workplaces and under the glow of street lamps. Community organizations called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution — created in part to root out anti-government activity — are now tasked with collecting criticism of the socialist system, along with suggestions for how to reform it.
Declining revenues and mounting debts have stretched the Cuban government to the point that it must trim some of its longstanding entitlement programs, Castro told the National Assembly during the August speech.
"Nobody, no individual nor country, can indefinitely spend more than she or he earns. Two plus two always adds up to four, never five," he said. "Within the conditions of our imperfect socialism, due to our own shortcomings, two plus two often adds up to three.”
That losing formula has the Cuban government increasingly exhorting its citizens to work harder, expect less and come up with solutions to their own problems.
The input is funneled upward to Cuba's leaders and will ostensibly be used to guide the reform process. Similar discussions soliciting criticism and ideas were gathered during a round of open-air discussions called by Castro in 2007. The government collected 1.3 million opinions from residents during that period, Castro said, nearly half of which were criticisms of one problem or another.
While Cuban authorities have made it clear that major political and economic reforms to the country’s one-party system are not on the discussion agenda, participants at the meetings are being encouraged to speak freely and openly about problems in their daily lives.
Many Cubans simmer with frustration brought by chronic transportation and housing shortages, a gargantuan state bureaucracy and salaries that average roughly $20 a month, even though most consumer goods in state-run stores are priced above what they would cost in the United States.
Subsidies for food, utilities and other basics offset those meager earnings, but as the government’s fortunes decline, authorities are increasingly telling Cubans to tackle their own problems. One high-ranking party official recently said Cubans can’t expect for the “daddy state” to fix everything, waiting with open mouths “like baby birds.”
Such a statement is “offensive” to the Cuban people, said dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who has spent time in prison for his opposition to the government.
“This system was designed to control everyone, so it’s absurd that the official propaganda talks about the ‘daddy state,’” he said, referring to Cuba’s government-run media. “It’s as if the Cuban people were to blame for this economic debacle, and not the government. The government is to blame for the way Cubans behave, because this is the system it created.”
Espinosa Chepe said Cubans would gladly solve their own problems if the government would allow for more small businesses and other forms of economic independence. Furthermore, that could generate the tax revenues needed to preserve the country’s social safety net, he argued.
And as the governments’ finances dwindle, Cuba’s safety net is beginning to fray.
Two major rollbacks of the island’s socialist system are now under consideration, and both involve major government programs that, though often criticized, deliver basic nutrition staples to all Cubans.
The first proposed reform would gradually eliminate the workplace cafeterias that provide nearly-free lunches to a third of the island’s population each weekday, at a cost of more than $350 million a year. Instead, workers will receive a cash stipend, doubling the average workers’ salary.
The second major reform threatens to eliminate the ration-card system that provides every Cuban with about two weeks’ worth of food at highly subsidized prices, but is beset by inefficiencies. In the name of egalitarianism, the program doles out the same amount of food to everyone, even to those who don’t need it.
Earlier this month in a much-discussed editorial that appeared in the communist party daily Granma, editor Lazaro Barredo Medina said the ration book had become a drag on the state’s struggling finances and reform efforts. "The ration booklet was a necessity at one time, but it has become an impediment to the collective decisions the nation must take," he said.
His words touched off rampant speculation about the imminent demise of the ration system. But it’s not clear how the Cuban government would be able to quickly implement such a measure, since so many seniors and low-income families depend heavily on it. Cuba has no income-tax system and a vast black market economy, so ascertaining citizens’ real earnings for the purpose of welfare eligibility would be extremely difficult.
Then there is the threat of inflation.
“Getting rid of the ration book seems like a good move, but only if salaries can keep pace with the price of food,” said Aurelio Alonso, deputy editor of Cuba’s Casa de las Americas journal.
For Cubans to be able to pay market prices for food, worker salaries would have to double or triple, he said, and that would bring inflation if food supplies remain the same. “And that would be a big problem,” he said.
Still, Alonso said he sees the younger Castro as a practical man who understands economics, and he expects further reforms to follow. “You can’t have social justice and social goods if you don’t have an economy capable of sustaining it.”