Pascual Serrano – Publico.es
The media have joyfully picked up the news that Cubans may “freely” buy electric appliances and stay in the country’s hotels, something that until now was not permitted. Of course some critics of the Cuban revolution have pointed out that the prices are prohibitive. Buying a DVD player, a computer or a television with a bigger than 19-inch screen will be as difficult for many Cubans as it has been so far for someone in downtown Port au Prince, a native of Chiapas, a Honduran farmer or an unemployed Argentinean. What was until a few days ago banned by the government has come to be banned by the market. It’s good that Cubans should come to know that that is the freedom offered by capitalism, now that they’ve reached it in regard to the purchase of electric appliances. Because they have to know that in the large majority of neighboring countries, outside of socialism, freedom means everything one can acquire with money: freedom to travel, freedom to stay in a hotel, freedom to buy a car, freedom to buy space in a publication, freedom to run as a candidate in elections, freedom to choose one’s doctor, freedom to send one’s children to college. That’s why they say that what has been “liberalized” in Cuba are the refrigerators and televisions.
Government prohibitions in Cuba are constantly complained about, but it is always forgotten that in capitalism, money is what prohibits a waiter in a seafood restaurant from sitting there once in awhile with his wife, as a client, or that a mason working on a house downtown or an apartment at the beach might be the owner of a residence such as the one he’s building.
It’s not that I’m criticizing the government’s actions or that I’m against Cubans being able to buy all these things and stay in hotels, but it’s clear that what’s being celebrated everywhere else as an “advance” or “opening” in the revolution, is not one for the average Cuban. It’s not an advance because the market is not one. What’s happening now is that Cubans with their electric appliances – now that they are permitted to buy them, cannot because they don’t have the money – is what takes place in the majority of capitalist countries with health, education and electoral choices. So when it’s proposed that such “openings” and “liberalizations” continue, you can already imagine what they’ve got in mind.
In Cuba, socialism’s failures – the majority unavoidable due to external conditions and market globalization – have caused some Cubans, for a variety of reasons (family remittances from outside the country, private restaurants, legal or illegal small businesses, professional employment in tourism, or with foreign businesses and institutions, etc…) may have access to significant sums of money that now can be devoted to these consumer goods. A few weeks ago a student asked Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the Cuban parliament, why if he had a thousand dollars, he could not travel to Egypt, for example, if the trip were to cost $400 going and another $400 returning. With his good intentions, the naive question exposed a culture colonized by the market. If he wasn’t asking from a capitalist ideological point of view, he might have asked why an art history student or a good worker can’t go on vacation to Egypt, whether or not he has a thousand dollars. Indeed, what grants the “freedom” to travel on vacation to Egypt to those with a thousand dollars is capitalism. Some are even assured the “freedom” to go every week if they wish.
Those who believe in socialism also support the right of citizens to travel on vacation to Egypt; what sets us apart from capitalists is that we don’t believe that it should be conditioned on having a thousand dollars, rather on other things. It’s true that in Cuba no-one can travel on vacation to exotic countries, because in a just society, no-one should be able to go sight-seeing 2,000 kilometers away while a child remains hungry or unschooled. And I’m not saying that Cubans shouldn’t have the right to travel, have a DVD or a big-screen television. Granma’s director, Lázaro Barredo, has explained it quite clearly: “It’s not possible to expect that more necessities are going to be met if you don’t work more, or produce more.” If in my house we want to have another chair to sit in, we have two choices: we make one with our hands, or we make something for a neighbor that we can exchange for money that allows us to go to the store and buy a chair. In Cuba, two currencies exist side by side, the Cuban peso and the convertible peso, pegged to the U.S. currency with a value 25 times higher than that of the Cuban currency. If an increase in the Cuban peso’s purchasing power is desired, more items will have to be produced (improved agricultural production, for example) domestically, for domestic consumption or for consumption in neighboring countries, where they could be sold in exchange for currency to buy products that are not manufactured domestically and thereby lower their price. In other words, raise the value of the Cuban peso with respect to the convertible one.
The liberalization measures announced in the sale of electric appliances affect only the market, unavoidably, but the market only meets the desires of those with money. For Cubans to have access to these products requires a hardworking population raising the level of production and leadership inspired by equity and social justice. I have no doubt that Cuba has those two things, because I am convinced that sooner rather than later, these products and many others, difficult to acquire, will not only be liberalized, they will be socialized; that is, accessible to the vast majority of citizens.