This article was originally published in Washington Jewish Week.
My 9-year old grandson Matan is a very serious baseball fan. I have to study the box scores carefully during the season just to keep up with him, but still he knows everything I know and more.
So it was not surprising last summer that we both took note of Yasiel Puig, a 22-year old rookie from Cuba who hit the big leagues like a bolt of lightning. When he played his first game for the Dodgers on June 3, the team was in last place in its division. Yet he quickly turned things around, getting 44 hits in his first month (including seven home runs), more than anyone since Joe DiMaggio had 48 hits in the first month of his rookie year, back in 1936.
Veteran announcer Vince Scully called Puig “the Wild Horse” because of the passion he brought to every aspect of the game, from his powerful bat to his aggressive base running to his ability to throw out runners from deep right-field without hitting the cutoff man. Manager Don Mattingly credited Puig’s infectious energy with igniting a hot streak that catapulted the Dodgers into first place in their division.
It’s hard to imagine that just a little more than a year before Puig’s astonishing arrival to the big leagues, he and a dozen others attempting to escape from Cuba in a small boat were picked by a U.S. Coast Guard cutter and held onboard for two weeks, after which they were returned to the island. It wasn’t the first time Puig had tried to escape, and it wouldn’t be the last. Less than two months later, he escaped again, this time to Mexico, at which point the Dodgers — to the disbelief of many in the baseball world — offered him a seven-year, $42 million contract. It turned out to be a steal.
The International Republican Institute (IRI) recently released the results of a survey the Institute conducted in Cuba last summer. Among the chief findings of the survey was the fact that more than three-quarters of Cubans are generally pessimistic when it comes to the leadership of the current Cuban government – they have little or no confidence that Raul Castro can solve the many everyday problems facing Cubans, including food shortages, lack of jobs and brutal high costs of (simple) living.
In fact nearly the same amount of Cubans, if given the chance tomorrow, would vote to change the Cuban political- and economic systems. Indeed, more than four-out-of-five Cubans (86 percent) support immediate economic change.
A Communist Party Congress planned for this year, where economic reform was to be the main topic of discussion, was postponed indefinitely. Meanwhile economic growth on the island, affected by the global economic crisis as well as declines in global nickel prices, slowed from 7.0 percent in 2007 to 4.3 percent in 2008 and is expected to dip to as low as 1.6 percent in 2009.
This is #1,000 post on the CIPE Development Blog. We thought that this small anniversary is a good reason for some reflection.
Since we launched the blog four years ago in December 2005, the online environment has changed significantly. Blogging for democracy and economic freedom is spreading, especially in places where traditional media is tightly controlled. What was a novelty four years ago – such as blogging in Iran or Cuba – has become accepted as a given.
Human Rights Watch released a new report on the current Castro regime in Cuba. This 123 page report, entitled “New Castro, Same Cuba” exposes Raul Castro to be just as repressive as Fidel while attempting to strengthen rather than dismantle the current system. Despite a lack of government cooperation, and citizens living in fear of telling their stories, HRW was able to gather 60 interviews from 7 of the 14 provinces in Cuba. This report shines a light on some of the biggest challenges to freedom in Cuba today.
Perhaps the most disturbing facet of this report is the more than 40 cases cited where people have been sentenced for “dangerousness” – a law that allows individuals to be arrested before they commit or plan a crime. The individuals targeted by the enforcement of this law come from a range of different professions and backgrounds. It is also considered “dangerous” to run or work for a private business that is not specifically recognized by the state, or to choose not to work for official government employment. This means that despite meager government wages, individuals do not have the opportunity to generate their own income any other way.
In a place where freedom of speech and freedom of press are considered luxuries and not rights, Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez has found a way to project her voice. In her alternative blog, Generation Y, Sánchez recounts her daily life in Havana, but is sure to include a colorful and critical analysis of the government and its policies. She herself refers to the blog as “an exercise in cowardice” because it allows her to say virtually what she is unable to say in public. Because of her uncompromising content, the Cuban government has made every effort to step in and limit her audience within Cuba. This constant struggle against the government, however, has not diluted her efforts. Since starting the blog in 2008, Sánchez has received many international commendations for her efforts, and recently was awarded the Maria Moors Cabot Prize from Columbia University in New York. Not surprisingly, and also not for the first time, Yoani Sánchez was denied the right to travel outside of the country to accept this award. Undeterred, she recorded her conversation with government officials about this unjust travel prohibition and publicized that experience online as well.
On Wednesday, May 20, people around the globe will celebrate Cuba Solidarity Day. All during the month of May inside Cuba, peaceful demonstrations have been taking place by democratic opposition leaders who are wearing white bracelets with the word “CAMBIO” (“change”) inscribed and promoting the “Yo No Copero” (“I Will Not Cooperate”) campaign to speak out against the violation of human rights in Cuba.
Last week, I had the opportunity to view a new documentary film by Yesenia E. Alvarez Temoche, President of the Instituto Político para la Libertad in Peru, entitled “Cuba and the Elephants.” The film provides a harsh look at the realities of the Castro regime’s public policies and their impact on the Cuban people. Particularly jarring are the sad states of Cuban health care and education that had always been flaunted as the successes of the regime.
There is an increasing trend of opinion that opening up Cuba to trade is the right way to go. After all, decades of isolation have not worked and the regimes of the brothers Castro have found ways to coopt the embargo to extend their grip on power. In other countries like China, trade has certainly helped to bring at least some economic democracy to people in the country.
Still, we can only expect trade to work so far with a regime that has proven its brutality repeatedly over fifty years. The Associated Press recently reported that the European Union had seen no progress toward getting the Cuban government to improve its human rights record through a lifting of economic sanctions. This is a sobering realization, but one that can only demand continued resolve to figure out ways in which the Cuban people can achieve democracy.
Although Raúl Castro promises to remain faithful to the ideals of the revolution after de facto succession of his brother Fidel, he has publicly acknowledged that Cuba’s socialism does not work. For one, the collectivist system created through farm land expropriations is crumbling in the face of the global food crisis. In order to increase production, the government is turning to market approaches: it shifted control of farms from Havana to local councils and granted private farmers the right to till plots of up to 99 acres of unused government land.
While the economic transformation may just be getting started on the farms, it’s well under way in the cities where entrepreneurs – inhibited by the lack of legal opportunities to conduct business – fuel the growth of the informal sector. From house-based restaurants and unofficial tourist room rentals to unregistered gyms, vast numbers of Cubans operate “por la izquierda” – “on the left” of the law. Christian Science Monitor comments:
Such gray-market microenterprises exemplify a spirit of dynamism and creativity straining to be fully unleashed, say some observers of Cuba. The question of the day: Is Raúl Castro about to release it? (…) Raúl’s reputation as a pragmatist is unfurling expectations here that the era of asceticism and austerity is coming to a close. Major agricultural reforms have been unveiled. And [he seems] to be preparing the populace for an economic shift. “Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income,” Raúl said on July 11 while addressing Cuba’s rubber-stamp parliament in its first session since he replaced Fidel. “Equality is not egalitarianism.”
That’s quite a change of rhetoric for the Cuban leadership. The introduction of market incentives in farming combined with the recent liberalization of access to cell phones, DVD players, and computers raises questions about how far the government is willing to go. Easing the registration procedures for small businesses and lowering the prohibitive burden of high taxes could be just the boost that Cuban economy desperately needs – and a proof of the growing open-mindedness of the regime. Ordinary citizens certainly seem ready for the change and question why entrepreneurial activities that are encouraged and rewarded in most countries are forbidden here. The CSM article quotes one such informal entrepreneur, “In the future, the economy will open up. It has to. The people have a limit.”