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Cuba's public "privatization" debate

Cuba's Communist Party newspaper has been publishing unusually frank criticisms of Cuban socialism.

A man reads a Granma newspaper on a sidewalk in Havana, Nov. 13, 2009. Granma has become an unlikely forum for a debate over small-scale liberalization measures. (Enrique De La Osa/Reuters)

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.”