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HAVANA, Apr 7 2010 (IPS) - It will soon be three years since Cuban president Raul Castro acknowledged the necessity of introducing structural and conceptual changes in the social and economic model of the country, which is plagued by endemic inefficiency, contradictions, unpredictable factors, and bureaucratic measures and countermeasures that block any movement towards a possible tapping of the creative and productive potential of the island and its people.

Although from the beginning, on July 26, 2007, the then interim government warned that immediate implementation of these modifications was impossible and asked for a grace period to take steps to avoid making new mistakes, Cuban life today is in ever more urgent need of change in a wide range of the country’s social structures and modes of production.

What is clearly necessary are measures that can guarantee, above all, an elevation of living standards for a population that since the early 1990s has seen drastic reductions in its levels of consumption, in its access to material improvements and basic services, and especially in food and housing, which constitute the largest headaches for the millions and millions of Cubans who must struggle day after day just to get by.

True, there have been some changes in this period, almost all of an economic nature, some intended to collect currencies held by certain sectors of the population by allowing Cubans to patronise centres of tourism and open cell phone accounts. Various subsidies and handouts were eliminated -in particular, middle school scholarships and free workers cafeterias in certain ministries- while the number of subsidised products available with the ration card was slashed.

There were attempts to increase the efficiency of the agricultural sector by dividing up a part of the numerous state land holdings that had (unbelievably) lain fallow as a result of a highly regulated land-use system, and by creating more direct connections between producers and consumers.

An initiative was undertaken to fight corruption and a lack of state control by creating a central regulatory agency that would -or should- oversee the prosecution of certain categories of theft, “misuse of resources”, and the unimaginably varied range of schemes that have grown up in every area and every level of Cuban production, services, and bureaucracy.

In reality all of these moves -though both obvious and necessary- have barely affected Cuba’s centralised state apparatus and done almost nothing to relieve the basic problems of the people, which remain for the most part unchanged over the last two decades: the low purchasing power of state salaries, which forces people to find alternative sources of income or to live off of “inventions” outside of state labour regulations; the shortage of products at farmers markets and high prices (a kilogram of pork costs a worker three days’ wages) caused by a system that has failed in every possible way; the near eternal and seemingly unsolvable problem of the housing shortage and overcrowding (with all of the social fallout it causes).

Add to these problems the ever more alarming flaws of the healthcare system (the most dramatic example of which was the death from cold of tens of patients in the Havana psychiatric hospital, an event supposedly still under investigation), the educational system (the decline in the quality of instruction is evident at first sight and was noted eventually in the official press) and even the field of sports (where there have been inconceivable debacles, even in Cuba’s traditional strengths, like baseball and boxing).

Many families benefitted from the Obama administration’s move to lift limits on travel to the island by Cubans living in the US and on remittances from the US to family members back home. But the resources introduced as a result, though they ease daily life for many in the country and fill state coffers, do not carry over into a strengthening of economic structures outside the centralised state system because there are no mechanisms in place to accomplish this.

What is contradictory in this situation is the fact that this influx from abroad always generates differences in economic advantage, further exacerbating the disparities in Cuban society and leading to the emergence of a privileged class not as a result of its own abilities and efforts but rather its access to currency. As a result, while certain young Cubans have enough money to invest a thousand dollars to receive breast implants, the majority live counting every devalued peso just to survive.

While in recent months the political temperature of the island has risen notably, the essential changes that many hope for have not materialised, and daily life remains as arduous and complicated as in previous years. In addition, there are even threats that social benefits may be cut further by a state that is trying to end its paternalism without abandoning the essence of this political and philosophical approach. As a result, although it is now possible to buy aspirin in pharmacies, the headaches of daily Cuban life go unrelieved because, as I think everybody knows, it will take more than a simple analgesic to treat them. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages. His most recent work is The Man Who Loved Dogs, featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin Ramon Mercader as central characters.

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