– Boston University Professor Susan Eckstein is author of “The Immigrant Divide: How Cuban Americans Changed the U.S. and Their Homeland” and “Cuba under Castro,” and past president of the Latin American Studies Association. The views expressed are her own. –
Raul Castro announced that 10 percent of Cuba’s state employees, half a million people, will be dismissed from their public sector jobs and free to pursue work in the private sector. The near-fiscally bankrupt state no longer can afford to pay inefficient workers. But the Cuban leadership remains a reluctant reformer. We Americans have a vested interest in facilitating a deeper market transition 90 miles off shore.
This is not the first time Cuba under the Castro brothers has launched market reforms, having introduced minor openings over the years. After paying nearly all workers equally and distributing most goods equitably through a ration system in the ‘60s, it began to tie earnings to work performance, expand private economic opportunities in agriculture and the service sector, and allow goods to be sold off the ration system on an ability to pay basis. It has also permitted private foreign investment since the ‘90s. But measures introduced during economic troubles proved too meager to fuel significant economic growth and many were reversed when priorities shifted.
While head of state, Fidel made the decision to follow neither the Soviet nor the Chinese examples of reform. He considered the Soviet model — in which glasnost (political reform) preceded perestroika (economic reform) — an invitation for political suicide. While the U.S. applauded Soviet changes, the political opening drove Gorbachev from power, leaving the Soviet Union to join the dustbin of history. And when Fidel went very publicly to China to learn about capitalism, he didn’t like what he saw — rising inequality and materialism, antithetical to the egalitarian and non-materialistic precepts of the Cuban revolution.
If times have changed and continued commitment to socialist precepts are a luxury the Cuban government no longer can afford, how likely is a full market transition? Private sector jobs require private investment. Earning only about $20 a month on average, ordinary Cubans cannot be the main source of capital. The government might provide some financing, but it plans to slim down state employment precisely because it lacks the fiscal resources to keep the economy afloat.