Imagine working in a country where you are guaranteed a job, get free education and health care, food is inexpensive and you are paid $20 a month. Does that sound attractive? Well, it did - to a lot of Cubans who did not have jobs and were living in poverty in the years after Cuba got independence from Spain.
More recently, Cuban President - Raul Castro, has announced that more than half a million people employed by his government will be losing their jobs - 85% of the country presently works for the government! Cubans are encouraged to start their own private businesses and the government can save on costs of supporting their people. These announcements have taken the Cubans and the world by surprise, as it signals a shift in Cuba's socialist policy.
Working for the 'state'
In 1959, a band of revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro overthrew the dictatorial government of Fulgencio Batista. After he became president, Castro ordered the takeover of farmlands, banks and private institutions, most of which were in the control of big U.S companies. He established a 'socialist' order, where everyone worked for the state and in return received state care and support. This has had lasting impact - positive and negative.
Cubans were getting paid whether they worked hard or not and over the years, people simply were not motivated to do their jobs, resulting in gradual economic slowdown. Cuba depends on imports for 80% of its food. Tourism and sugar are the primary source of revenue for the country.
What are the proposed changes?
Since taking over the Presidency from brother Fidel in 2006, Raul Castro has realized that for Cuba to be competitive, the government needs to step aside and let the people take decisions. The Communist party met for the first time in 14 years last week. At the meeting, Raul has proposed that future leaders of Cuba have a 10 year maximum term of office. Cubans will be given the right to buy and sell their homes and cars -- a right we take for granted. The government will transfer state property to its people.
There was great expectation that young people would be elected to run the party. But guess what -- Raul announced 2 people, both over 78 years of age to assist him in the political process! There is growing concern that the next generation is not being groomed to lead the country.
Two official currencies
“National peso” is the currency that the Cubans are paid and used to purchase basic needs and non luxury items. “Convertible peso” is the currency used by tourists. Since 2004, to buy one Cuban Peso a tourist had to pay $1.08 USD. This currency is being made cheaper (or devalued) by 8% so that one USD can buy one Cuban Peso. This should make Cuba more affordable to tourists and bring in revenue.
Ordinary Cubans have barely reacted to these changes. Either they do not understand the effects of the changes, or they are afraid to speak openly. But it is clear that many of them will be part of the change that is sweeping through Cuba -- a change from guaranteed jobs and paid lunches!