Another "Special Period" in Cuba? How Citizens View Their Country's Future

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Cubans are gearing up for what they fear will be another "Special Period" of economic hardship, following two hurricanes in 2008 that increased food shortages and intensified their struggle to survive.  Despite promises of reform by the government, they see little improvement in their daily lives.  While many Cubans expect the communist system to collapse eventually, they view change in Cuba as a distant prospect, and have difficulty envisioning a better future for their country.  Some look to a new U.S. president to introduce changes in policy toward Cuba that will advance social and economic improvements on the island.

Freedom House conducted interviews with 160 Cubans on the island in September and October 2008.  These interviews sought to determine how the transfer of power from Fidel to Raúl Castro and subsequent announcements of various economic and agricultural reforms have affected ordinary Cubans.

The interviews suggest that the announced reforms have had little effect on most Cubans.  Some of these reforms, such as the government's decision to allow the purchase of cell phones, have had little impact on the daily lives of ordinary Cubans since most Cubans still cannot afford the phones and the usage charges.  Other reforms, including various agricultural initiatives, had been announced but were not yet implemented by October.

Cubans struggle to survive from day to day, and their struggle has intensified following a severe hurricane season.  They are particularly concerned about food shortages and rising prices, and worry that hurricane damage and the global financial crisis will make their situation worse.  Many respondents fear that Cuba might be entering another "Special Period," a sharp economic decline similar to the one Cuba experienced during the 1990s after Soviet subsidies ended.

At a time of increased food shortages, agricultural reform was a topic of discussion in nearly all interviews.  However, few of the Cubans interviewed knew of the changes in agricultural policies, though they had been officially announced.  When asked about the government's initiative to give out small plots of land to individual farmers, a handful of respondents wondered why the government had waited so long, since large tracts of land are now overrun with marabú, a thorny shrub that is difficult to eradicate.

In the wake of the hurricanes, the government introduced a ban on street vending. The ban was intended to prevent price gouging but instead had immediate adverse effects, eliminating an important source of income for many Cubans and making food harder to find.

While food shortages and prices were Cubans' overriding concerns, respondents also expressed discontent with the country's education and healthcare systems.  As evidenced by some of the responses, Cuba's vaunted healthcare system appears to be highly overrated.  A professor of cardiology said that many of his students graduate without being able to read an electrocardiogram (EKG).  "I am not training doctors," he exclaimed.  "I am cranking out white coats!"

Lack of progress on announced reforms, combined with damage from the hurricanes, has made Cubans even more pessimistic about the prospects for change on the island.  Some Cubans see Fidel Castro's presence as an obstacle to reforms that Raúl might initiate.  Others believe that they will have to wait until both brothers are gone to see major social and economic changes.  A man in his early thirties said of the prospects for change, "I'll probably be old, but I hope to see it to know my kid will be okay."

Cubans say they still feel unable to organize popular responses to government abuses, though there is some evidence that people are less willing to put up with aggressive government authorities than they were a few years ago.  One researcher, for example, watched a young man in Havana knock down a policeman after the policeman hassled him about his identification card.

Citizens nonetheless remain fearful of retaliation against public expressions of opposition to the government.  One woman warned that "if you walk outside with a sign against Fidel, you will never see the light of day again."  The government's neighborhood watch organizations, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), continue to have a stronghold on power at the local level.  While fear of reprisal prevents open criticism of CDR leaders, some respondents expressed clear dislike of them, calling them "morons" and "government lapdogs."

The interviews indicated that most Cubans have little confidence that change will come from within Cuba.  Respondents know little about opposition groups on the island, and Cuban youth are apathetic and seem uninterested in participating in a future transition.  Few interviewees expect the Catholic Church to contribute to political change.  While the Catholic Church plays a significant role in providing social services, it is not seen as a locus of political dissent.

Many Cubans are resigned to the current situation and continue to live day to day.  A doctor from Santiago, for example, said that no ordinary Cuban could do much to change the system.  "Que puedo hacer? Resignarme.  Resignarme y tratar de vivir mejor."  (What can I do?  Be resigned and try to live better.)  He said most Cubans want more money and a better economic situation; they are not thinking about freedom.  Two young students, when asked about life in Cuba, responded sarcastically, "We have to like it.  It's our country and we can't leave."

The findings of this survey point to the need for Cuban democracy activists to present a compelling vision for change, to expand their outreach to the public, and to empower citizens to take initiative within their communities.  Dissidents, human rights activists, and other democracy advocates remain largely unknown or misunderstood in Cuba, because they are unable to communicate directly with the public.  If they are to succeed, they must find ways to expand their outreach, so that they can better inform Cubans of the alternatives to Communist rule and inspire citizens to participate in civic activities.

In recent years, democracy activists and other civil society actors, such as artistic, religious, and youth groups, have created some space for citizens to act with relative independence from the state.  Post-hurricane relief and reconstruction efforts offer new opportunities for citizens to organize independently.  Participation in civic activity, even if not overtly political, will be critical if change is to come to Cuba, because it empowers citizens and helps them to feel that they have a stake in the future of their community and their country.  That sense of empowerment could drive citizens to assert their rights and mobilize in demanding freedom for Cuba.  At present, however, there is little evidence that ordinary Cubans feel so empowered.