I returned to the United States from Cuba in late September, and, for the first time in more than two years, I felt a sense of optimism. In Cuba, shortages had still been apparent at every turn; people continued to wait in long lines for almost everything, including buses that never seemed to come; even medicine was hard to come by. But while life remained grim, I sensed the anticipation that things will soon change for the better.
What fuels this hope? Well, for one thing, with new shipments of petroleum to run the electric power plants, the awful 18-hour-a-day blackouts of August had been trimmed to four. Imagine: in the middle of Cuba's hottest month, there had been no air-conditioning, fans, refrigerators or even lights. People could not sleep at night. As a Cuban friend says, "We were all so hot and irritable that we were ready to explode."
No wonder people felt a sharp sense of relief with the electricity on again most of the day. If nothing else, they could at least sleep at night. Most Cubans with whom I spoke seem to believe it was more than a temporary respite. They knew that Total, the French petroleum company, was to begin drilling its first well off the north coast of Cuba in the fall and that there is a very high chance of a major oil find. It may result in the same kind of heavy, high-sulfur oil produced ashore, but even that will make a major difference. It can be burned in electric power plants and thus mark the possible end of blackouts.
But far more important than oil in stimulating optimism were the economic reforms announced by the Cuban government. Castro had already legalized the dollar during the summer. But then he opened up the service sector and agriculture to private enterprise on an individual basis. Those who wish to open tailor shops, television repair shops, garages and bakeries can do so. State farms will be converted into private cooperatives run on the basis of profitability. Individual citizens will be leased land that they can cultivate on their own. The law does not say they can sell directly to consumers, but few doubt that they will do so.
Of course there are observers in the United States who say these measures are inadequate, that of themselves they will not solve Cuba's economic crisis. The critics are right. Cuba's problems stem principally from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the international socialist system. There is no more economic umbilical cord to Moscow and no more sister socialist republics with whom Cuba can trade on a preferential basis. Clearly, then, Cuba must adjust its economic system so that it is more compatible with the market economies with which it must now trade and upon which it now depends for investments and credits. The old, centralized planning system of state-to-state trade deals must be tossed out.
Unless the measures announced so far are only the tip of the lance, to be followed by a revamping of the system, they will not solve anything. Cuban citizens understand that, yet are not discouraged. The vast majority with whom I spoke see this as indeed simply the beginning of a process of change, a process that is already irreversible and which will transform Cuba, over time, to a social democracy with a far more open economic and political system.
As one Cuban put it: "Now the door is open, and we are on the way. One step will lead to another and pretty soon, whether the government intends it or not, we'll have a real mixed economy."
It is this belief--that the process is irreversible--that has, more than anything else, excited the growing sense of optimism. Observers in the United States narrowly focus on the limitations of the current reforms: that individuals can open private enterprises, but they can only employ members of their own families; that individuals can cultivate private plots, but are not authorized to sell to consumers. Yet the great majority of Cubans see these "limitations" as fiction. They note that private enterprises were operating even before the most recent changes were proposed and in most of these, one or more individuals were already working for another. That practice will continue and grow, they say. Further, whatever the law says, those who cultivate plots will, without question, sell directly to consumers, as will the new cooperatives. The government may delude itself and say there will be no "farmers' markets," but in fact these markets already exist.
"In a sense," says one Cuban who owns a newly licensed restaurant (though he has been operating without a license for the past year), "the government is simply going along with what the people are doing. And they'll have little choice but to continue to accept our lead from here on out. One step will lead inexorably to another, no matter how the government might have wished it to be otherwise. They have legalized the dollar. That step must be followed by the establishment of an official exchange rate. There is no alternative. They have authorized individual private enterprise. That must be followed by group enterprises. They may call them cooperatives rather than companies, but the results will be the same. And economic reform will lead to political reforms as well. No, my friend, this process will take momentum of its own; there's no stopping it now."
One can only hope that he is right, for unless the system is reformed and unless there is some concrete improvement in the situation soon, such as increased food supply, there could be bloodshed in Cuba, which would serve no one's interests. What everyone should be hoping for and working toward is a peaceful transitional process, one that transforms Cuba, over time, into the social democracy prayed for by dissidents such as Elizardo Sanchez and secretly by many within the Cuban government. It may take longer than anticipated to get there. Fidel Castro himself may preside over the process during the first few years. But if the objective can be reached without bloodshed and greater human suffering, then evolutionary change is preferable to violent upheaval. Speaking as one who loves the island and its people with an abiding passion, I can only hope that Cuba has now set foot on that transitional path.
Wayne S. Smith is a former U.S. diplomat who served in Havana from 1958-61 and as chief of the U.S. Interests section from 1979-82. He is now director of the Cuban program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.