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HAVANA, Sep 14 2010 (IPS) - If any of the world’s major polling firms dared conduct a macro survey of the 11 million Cubans, asking only where they thought their country was headed, I think the overwhelming majority would respond,”I have no idea, mate.”

There is, however, something that stands out clearly in the fog: the fact that the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party, government, and country is not considering among the possible alternatives a change from single-party socialism, the same system that dominated the Soviet Union and the socialist republics of Eastern Europe in the 20th century and that remains alive in certain communist Asian countries, from North Korea to China, although with very different characteristics that are in my opinion not very desirable as models for development and life for a country like Cuba.

In recent months we have seen the appearance in Cuba’s alternative media -emails and blogs- a serious debate about ways in which the economy of the island could be changed to lift it out of the current crisis of unproductivity and inefficiency that is the direct result of five decades of operation under the current model, insufficient controls, and a general lack of motivation among producers caused by salaries that for the last two decades have been too low to live off.

The latest subject of debate is the announced opening of the Cuban tourist industry to high-level visitors. This will include, it is said, the construction of marinas for luxury yachts, 18-hole golf courses, and even houses and apartments with 99-year leases for purchase by foreigners (according to a decree from July 19). The decision has generated a wide range of reactions, from that of the party orthodox, who say they didn’t carry weapons and make a revolutions to sell their country to millionaires, to those who argue that a few golf courses will change nothing if nothing of real importance changes.

Already in the 1990s during the profound crisis that engulfed the island after the disappearance of the Soviet Union and socialism in Eastern Europe, foreigners were allowed to purchase real estate built with foreign-Cuban government financing. But this possibility virtually disappeared before long. I even remember hearing the phrase that not a centimetre of the country would be sold to foreigners. Now the new decree gives extraordinary momentum to opening up investment in the housing and tourism sectors for foreign visitors -a particularly curious development in a country where the citizens are not allowed to buy or sell their own homes and where they need an inconceivable number of permits to build one with their own resources, or even to exchange theirs with another.

There has been a similar flurry of change is spheres in which state control has long been overwhelming, from the elimination of subsidies for the monthly ration of cigarettes for all Cubans born before 1956, to the imposition of taxes on street vendors selling mangos or avocados from their own gardens (they will now pay a 5 percent tax on sales and a contribution to social security) -this from the very clandestine vendors (of mangos and avocados!) who up until now were prosecuted and fined by the police.

The need to find work alternatives for the million-plus employees whose jobs in state agencies will have to be eliminated is but one of many reasons for the effort to revitalise freelance work and, it would seem, microbusinesses. But no sooner does this conversation begin than complications arise: Who in Cuba has the capital necessary to start a small business? Can the funds come from relatives or partners living abroad who want to give the Cuban economy a boost? How would it be possible to restore the entire structure that was dynamited in the “Revolutionary Offensive” of 1968 that converted Cuba into a socialist country with more state workers and fewer possibilities for non-state employment? And what about the supply of products, the market, or taxation, the health care system, or the police force, for all of which it would be necessary to open up an apparatus that has been sealed off for four decades?

A recent programme on Cuban television showed the situation of a clearinghouse for agricultural goods near Havana where because of the lack of transportation, huge quantities of plantains and yams that had just been harvested were lost. Could the private sector help to prevent such situations? The answer should be yes, but in this country in which the only vehicles that can be bought or sold are those manufactured before 1960(!), it is hard to imagine anyone succeeding in organising a cooperative or small business for private transport.

Assuming that the government is not trying to bring about political changes, the only possibility for opening certain economic doors will have to involve such an extensive restructuring of the Cuban system that, even if it remains the same, it will never be the same again. Meanwhile the image it projects of the future is a fog within which it is barely possible to make out certain vague figures. (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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