Cuba is beginning a new experiment, driven by necessity, of trying to build its own version of market socialism in one country. Just as populist movements in the hemisphere looked to Castro and Cuba for inspiration, now Cuba is learning from its allies as it cautiously seeks to open up its economy. A former minister of the economy spoke of how Cuba is committed to fostering private coops and businesses, and is beginning a push to make more state enterprises make their own way.
This month, 100 state-run produce markets and 26 other establishments are scheduled to become private cooperatives. The government says many more establishments will follow, beginning in 2014, as an alternative to small and medium-size state businesses in retail and food services, transportation, light manufacturing and construction, among other sectors.
Despite the embargo, José Martí International Airport displays the new vitality. Hundreds of Cuban Americans fly into see relatives, bringing everything from flat-screen TVs to consumer basics. Since President Obama lifted restrictions on family visits in 2009, remittances and material support from Cuban Americans play a growing role in the microeconomy of the island.
Whereas in the 1990s, Havana was willing to permit only limited private enterprise as an emergency measure, government officials now speculate openly about aiming toward 50 percent of Cuba’s GDP in private hands within five years. Of course, an expanding small business sector won’t resolve some central issues facing the island: access to large-scale credit and investment and the need to boost exports and address anemic productivity, not to mention the demands of an aging population.
In Havana, there is more talk about Brazil’s investment in renovating Mariel Harbor than about Edward Snowden. Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht had to resist threats by Florida’s state government to cut off any state contracts if it invested in Cuba. This enormous deep-water port is designed to handle trade with the United States and beyond in a post-embargo world, if the embargo is ever ended.
Cuba’s official media remains sclerotic, though there are spirited debates in a few online outlets. But the government appears to understand that the explosion of social media will transform communications and politics, and however tentatively, realizes it has little choice but to change if it is to engage a younger generation.