Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Driving toward Cuba's Future

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

Driving toward Cuba's Future

Article excerpt

A U.S. church delegation this winter discovered a Cuba at the crossroads of change.

THE CARS IN Cuba fascinate me. Where else in the world can one see a classic 1956 Oldsmobile, a shiny 1957 Chevy, and a 1970 VW bug alongside a new Audi and modern Chinese tour buses?

Our guide said there are four generations of cars in Cuba. First are those pre- revolutionary American cars - the vintage Chevys, Fords, Oldsmobiles, and Studebakers from the 1950s that somehow keep running. Then came the Russian-made Ladas, the small, ugly, square compacts that look like Fiats stripped of any Italian design.

By the '70s and '80s, Japanese and other Asian cars started trickling into Cuba, and they became the auto of choice after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then, in the last decade, the more expensive European cars began showing up. More recently, a fleet of fancy buses, mostly from China, has arrived to shuttle around the 2.5 million tourists now visiting the island each year (and improve public transportation in general).

The cars, of course, reflect the stages of Cuba's economic relationship with the outside world: the embargo from the U.S., its initial reliance on all things Russian, then growing global trade, followed by the influx of European tourists, and the recent economic resurgence of China.

Cars can now be bought and sold by Cubans.

g,This is one example of dramatic new economic £ policies, approved last April, being instituted in § Cuba. Dr. Osvaldo Martínez, director of Cuba's World Economy Research Center, called these changes "shock therapy^ like that being experienced by Greece, Spain, and many countries. Cubans should no longer "idolize" the Cuban economic model, Martínez said. Salaries have been increasing faster than productivity. Foods are being imported that could be produced domestically, but weren't because of the inefficiencies of centralized, Soviet-style agriculture. There has been an "exaggerated number of state employees," and massive layoffs have been occurring. At times Martínez nearly sounded like a Republican.

So the Cuban government has been legalizing and enlarging "self-employment" People can employ themselves as carpenters, plumbers, masons, shoe repairers, taxi drivers, and food vendors - in all there are now about 300,000 self-employed people in 200 areas, and the numbers are growing all the time.

WALKING DOWN QUIET side streets of Havana, one sees small shops in the front courtyards of row houses selling pizza, snacks, ice cream, and lunch sandwiches. More restaurants are opening. Away from the cities, parcels of unused agricultural land are now being given, rent-free, to small producers, reminiscent of the American practices that opened the West to forming.

Next year a tax policy - unknown previously to most Cubans - will go into place. AU these are major changes now being adopted, implemented, and accelerated in Cuba's socialist economic system.

At the same time, officials insist that Cuba's socialist model is not being abandoned; it is being reformed. The gains made in human development - the elimination of illiteracy, accessible and free education for all, free medical care that touches every citizen, a system of social security - will always be safeguarded, they say. Life expectancy in Cuba is 78.8 years, one of the highest of developing countries and similar to the U.S. What we would call the "social safety net" is sacrosanct, protecting all Cubans, even in the midst of the dislocation experienced by some from these economic reforms.

Cuban religious life is finding new vitality. While I visited, pilgrimages honoring the Virgin of Charity - based on the story of the appearance of the Virgin to two Indigenous Cubans and a slave boy in 1612 in El Cobrewere underway, involving 2 million people.

The Methodists in Cuba have the goal of establishing a "preaching station" in every community in the country, and they report being 85 percent toward completing this outreach. …

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