Real Change for Cuba?
How Citizens View Their Country's Future
In September 2010, Cuban president Raul Castro announced the beginning of sweeping economic reforms, including the elimination of a million public sector jobs, the easing of restrictions on private enterprise, and the first Communist Party Congress since 1997. To explore what Cubans think about the announced reforms, Freedom House conducted in-depth interviews with 120 people in six provinces from December 2010 to January 2011. These interviews also assessed access to information and technology on the island, and explored Cubans’ values and beliefs, which Freedom House compared with the findings from other countries in the World Values Survey study.
The results of this study indicate that despite hopes that the reforms will benefit Cuba, many do not believe they will personally benefit. Cubans continue to struggle to survive on a daily basis and are preoccupied by the need to feed their families, pay debts, and find work. When asked to describe their economic situation, the most common adjective used was “apretado” (tight). Cubans want to see economic reforms that will increase wages, lower prices, and make basic goods and services more available. Many younger Cubans would like to start a family but are unable to afford to live on their own, let alone raise children. As a young salesperson in Havana said, “If I don’t have enough to support just myself, what will it be like if I have a family?” The poor state of Cuba’s transportation system further isolates Cubans, particularly those in rural areas.
While there is some indication that outright repression on the island has lessened slightly, Cubans are still subjected to a variety of restrictions on freedom of expression, private enterprise, and freedom of movement. Cubans are reluctant to complain in public, yet often criticize the government in private. Private businesses such as casas particulares (family homes that rent out a room) are subjected to hefty taxes and fined for minor infractions. A casa particular owner in Villa Clara, for example, claimed, “Everyone watches you here. If it’s not the government, it’s the neighbors who immediately alert the authorities when someone arrives.” Although the Cuban government opened tourist areas to Cubans in 2008, the high cost of entry means few are able to take advantage of the facilities or services, such as the internet, offered at these sites. A resident of Villa Clara acknowledged, “It’s an achievement by the government. But who does it serve? The tourists and not the Cuban people. Before we couldn’t even enter; now we can, but how are we going to do that if everything is in CUC [pesos convertibles, or convertible peso)]?”
Additionally, Cubans continue to need official permission to travel or move between provinces, as well as to leave the country. A respondent from Villa Clara explained how Cubans are required to have work licenses or certificates in order to exchange places with a family member in another province. Also, several respondents spoke of their efforts to leave the country either by acquiring a Cuban exit visa or gaining citizenship from another country and subsequently obtaining a non-Cuban passport. Separately, the July 2010 prisoner release negotiation was also initially hailed as reform, yet almost all of those released were forced to accept exile in countries such as Spain and the United States, prompting critics to argue that the Cuban government was using the prisoner release to physically remove the opposition from the island.
Cubans have reacted to the economic reforms announced in September 2010 with a mix of anxiety and optimism. Many worry that prices will rise, making daily life even more difficult.
Some, such as a medical school graduate in Pinar del Rio, explained that they were unsure how the reforms would affect their families, but that they were sure the Cuban authorities would implement them correctly. In a country where several generations often live together, many also fear the loss of social assistance such as ration booklets and assistance for the elderly. A teacher in Havana told of how prices have already begun to rise steeply for basic services that used to be subsidized, such as haircuts, while a handicraft vendor in Santa Clara declared, “They’re going to throw us out of our jobs, and then on top of that they’re cheating the elderly. I have to take care of my in-laws. With what? It can’t be like this.” Despite the strong concern about bread and butter issues, however, Cubans also seem to desire a greater degree of fundamental freedoms. Increasing freedom of expression was considered by those interviewed as the second most important goal for the country, and freedom of movement was also mentioned frequently, particularly by younger Cubans.
Many, however, are still skeptical that true reform can ever occur while a Castro is still in power, and do not anticipate any real change in the next 12 months. “Nothing really changes in Cuba,” explained a former prostitute from Havana.
The majority of Cubans obtain news through word-of-mouth, television, radio, and newspapers. Cubans have little faith in the credibility of state-controlled news sources, and although independent sources are considered more credible, the majority of Cubans are unable to access them. For example, a 30-year-old woman from Santiago recounted an opportunity she once had to look at well-known blogger Yoani Sanchez’s blog Generación Y. Upon discovering that the blog commented only on daily shortages and other things that all Cubans experienced and already knew about, she expressed confusion about why it was blocked. “Why so much fuss about nothing?!” she exclaimed. Overall, there is a low level of interest in following local news, and even less interest in following international news. Internet and e-mail use, along with cell phone use, remains low as a result of high costs, low accessibility, and fears of being monitored by authorities.
Although relatively isolated from each other and the outside world, Cubans nevertheless hold fairly progressive social values, particularly relating to opinions on divorce, homosexuality, and abortion. The values questions in this study derive from the World Values Survey (WVS) questionnaire and were used to compare Cuba with other countries. The WVS employs an analytical framework to study two value dimensions. The first dimension differentiates between values that emphasize religious beliefs, hierarchical authority, and the role of traditional family values from a set of secular and rational values. The second dimension differentiates between a culture of scarcity, in which emphasis is placed on physical and physiological security, and a culture of subjective well-being. The study results suggest that Cubans lean more toward liberal social values (secular and rational) in the first dimension, and toward survival values (driven by a culture of scarcity) in the second dimension, indicating that Cuba is more similar in its social and economic values to other post-Communist countries than to its Latin American counterparts.