Cuba's public "privatization" debate

HAVANA, Cuba — Something unusual has been stirring lately in the pages of Granma, this country’s largest newspaper and the official mouthpiece of the Cuban Communist Party.

Lacking commercial advertising and printed entirely in red and black ink, Granma typically carries eight tabloid-style pages devoted to fawning coverage of Cuba’s top officials and the latest iniquities of Yankee imperialism. Its primary function is to promote the Cuban government, rather than cover it, offering an Orwellian chronicle of life on the island as a never-ending series of socialist triumphs.

But in recent months, Granma has become an unlikely forum for a debate that seems to portend much-expected reforms to Cuba’s state-run economy.

A flurry of op-ed columns have appeared lately in the paper’s “letters to the editor” section, staking out positions for and against something Cubans are calling “privatization” — small-scale liberalization measures that might allow more entrepreneurship and private business. At its roots, it is an argument over how to revive Cuba’s anemic economy, which was already woefully inefficient and unproductive before the global recession hit.

Most surprising, at least for the pages of Granma, is that many of the editorials contain rather frank criticisms of Cuba’s economic ills, which include petty corruption, the widespread theft of state goods and a low-wage system that pushes Cubans into black-market activity to make ends meet.

“What would it mean for the State to eliminate the ongoing farce of state-owned property?” asked one letter, signed by D. Gonzalez de la Cruz. Pilfering is so rife at state-run businesses that they’re already being privatized, he argued.

“In our current situation, privatization is already happening” Gonzalez wrote. “Only instead of a rational and well-thought-out process, it’s chaotic and perverse. What kind of social benefits do we get from state-run business and restaurants where the State pays the bills but the profits — obtained fraudulently and illegally — go into the pockets of the those who prey off the people and the State?”

The letters in Granma appear to be part of a broader re-examination of Cuban socialism called for in speeches by President Raul Castro, raising hopes and expectations among Cubans who struggle with constant shortages and a system that officially bans most forms of private commerce. Of course, the debates are bound by certain unspoken parameters, and do not contain calls for free-market capitalism nor any direct political criticism of Cuba’s leaders.

Rather, they are framed as a discussion about the best way to save Cuban socialism and its vaunted social safety net from an underachieving economy choked by excessive centralization and bureaucracy.

“I’m concerned about the future of my country, and it worries me that some still blindly believe that the old economic model we have is perfect,” wrote J. Gonzalez Fernandez in another Granma editorial, saying that he is a 28-year-old whose views are shared by “almost all young people.”

“We can’t keep living in the past. We have to think about the present and future of our country,” he wrote, adding that he believed “adjusting” socialism was needed to ensure its survival.

What’s not clear is when economic reforms may be enacted, nor how extensive they may be. With frustrations running high, many insist changes can’t wait. Even Cuba’s Catholic Church weighed in last week, publishing an editorial written by priest and economist P. Boris Moreno, who warned of “socioeconomic collapse” if reforms aren’t made.

And yet, if “privatization” is being floated in Granma and other official newspapers, does it indicate some package of liberalization measures have already been decided upon by the Castro government?

“I think these are changes that almost everyone supports, including many Communist Party militants, but I don’t know when they may occur” said dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, who said he has been followed the debates “with great interest.”

“Raul Castro raised a lot of expectations, and people are growing frustrated he hasn’t done anything,” he said.

Since Raul Castro officially took over Cuba’s presidency from his elder brother in 2008, his government has enacted modest reforms to Cuba’s agricultural sector, putting unproductive state land in the hands of private farmers and cooperatives. But many services and small businesses — from watch repair to fast-food restaurants to bakeries — remain in state hands.

And not everyone seems eager for that to change, as other editorials appearing in Granma have urged “not to give capitalism an inch.”

“Now is not the time to create the conditions for the reintroduction of clever and treacherous capitalism into our homeland,” wrote J.L. Valdes Carrasco, exhorting readers to work harder, produce more food, and “place absolute trust in the leaders of the Revolution,” while calling on young people to “lead in the decisive stage of the Revolution,” the term used on the island to refer to the Castros’ socialist system.

One interesting feature of the Granma debates is that many of those who have submitted letters for and against economic reforms try to bolster their arguments by borrowing quotes from Fidel Castro’s speeches. Gonzalez, the 28-year-old, cited Castro’s words from a 2000 May Day speech in making his case: “Revolution is everything that should be changed.”

That partisans on both sides would quote Castro may be a preview of the political debates likely to ensue once he, Raul, and their generation of Cuban leaders is gone, and younger Cubans are left to sort out the island’s problems.