Transition in Cuba: Real or Imagined?

Un cuentapropista vende maní y confituras en las calles de La Habana. (Luz Escobar)
A sole proprietor sells peanuts and sweets in Havana streets, but he is far from opening a store and growing his small business. (Luz Escobar)

Halfway between analysis and opinion, and not having responded clearly to his own initial question, journalist Carlos M. Álvarez recently addressed a controversial issue: the transition in Cuba, or to put it more accurately, as posed by the title of his work: Can a transition in Cuba be discussed?

In principle, we must give credit to Álvarez for his courage: to declare that we are experiencing a transition in Cuba may be total heresy for many, beyond their political positions, or likes or dislikes of the government or of the opposition. In particular, it is taboo for those who have communed with the official power; but also, as he points out, it is something denied by many Cubans who are not at all into politics, by a sector of the domestic opposition and by the most intransigent groups in exile.

In the case of the opposition, the author could not, or did not, wish to avoid the temptation to appeal to an imagined number of sources to validate the information, which assumes that “the bulk of the opposition” seems “caustic before a Cuba that’s stretching out from a slumber.” We hope that, in future journalistic deliveries, Álvarez might disclose statistical sources that led him to reach such a conclusion, beyond his personal impressions. Meanwhile, allow me to question the accuracy of his claim.

We are in a process of economic transition, extremely slow and strictly controlled by official power

On the other hand, the  transition issue is far from being a novelty among us, at least not to a significant part of independent journalism and to some opinion groups in Cuba and the diaspora, which have been noting as transition signs certain perfectly perceptible changes, ranging from the official discourse following the departure from the public stage of ex-president F. Castro, to certain changes in the economic and social order, or legal reforms, such as the January 2013 immigration and travel reform.

These are really inadequate changes, both in their proposals and in their depth and scope, but, somehow, they open some loopholes to new areas – inconceivable just a few years ago — which, in spite of the ruling elite and their hired applauders, break through the stagnation that characterized the previous decades.

It might have been appropriate to give the term  transition a surname, because, though in its simplest and most literal meaning, it generically means the passage from one state or mode to a different one, in the case of Cuba, it should be clear that we would need to state precisely that we are facing an extremely slow economic transition, strictly controlled by the official power, in which a self-proclaimed socialist State with a closed and vertically centralized economy has been mutating to State capitalism, with an economic monopoly controlled by the hands of the same political power.

Which is to say that we in Cuba are not witnessing – at least until now — a political transition consistent with a step towards democracy after more than a century of autocracy, but, at most, a process of transferring political power from the octogenarian elite to its heirs, after having secured guaranties for its economic power, a process which, in addition, has been demonstrating alarming signs of dynastic style, so we would be facing a political succession rather than a transition.

We are witnessing a process of transfer of political power from the octogenarian elite to its heirs

And this is not something that happens “just like that,” as the writer of the referenced text seems to be asserting, but because the Castro regime has concentrated such power and made sure of having dismantled so deftly the entire institutional framework of Cuban civil society. The regime has time and enough resources to even dispense quiet economic changes according to its own interests, without social mechanisms to question decisions made from the heart of power, let alone to push effectively towards more profound transformations.

Returning to Adam Michnik, whose quote proves to be unfortunately out of context and out of place in Álvarez’s article, it is true that we are in the midst of uncertain times in Cuba, but not because the power is not “strong enough to sweep the political and economic forms emerging, and vice versa” — which, on the contrary, it is — but because the uncertain and primitive economic forms that have emerged were promoted by that same power, while alternative political forms have not yet surfaced, or are too weak and fragmented to be erected on alternatives. Such is the peculiarity of the fragile and uncertain Cuban transition, whether we like it or not.

Thus, answering the essential question of the article by Carlos M. Álvarez for  BBC World, a process of economic transition is taking place in Cuba that today, due to the particular circumstances of our socio-political reality and other factors of a historical and cultural nature, is being promoted and controlled from the same power. So far, it’s only been confirmed that the economic scenario, on a so-called “experimental basis,” is showing clear signs of fatigue. Perhaps this cumulative process of half-changes and simulations directed mainly at the preservation of the political power might lead to a point where events rush towards a new stage, as unpredictable and different as the current one. For now, the Government continues to seize the baton fiercely and, in the short term, we cannot catch a glimpse of a complete and positive Cuban transition.

Translated by Norma Whiting

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