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IRI's Alex Sutton posts on CIPE's Development Blog

December 11, 2009
Cubans’ Confidence in Government Continues to Fall
By Alex Sutton - Director, Latin American and Caribbean Programs (IRI)

The International Republican Institute (IRI) recently released the results of a survey the Institute conducted in Cuba last summer.  Among the chief findings of the survey was the fact that more than three-quarters of Cubans are generally pessimistic when it comes to the leadership of the current Cuban government – they have little or no confidence that Raul Castro can solve the many everyday problems facing Cubans, including food shortages, lack of jobs and brutal high costs of (simple) living.  In fact nearly the same amount of Cubans, if given the chance tomorrow, would vote to change the Cuban political- and economic systems. Indeed, more than four-out-of-five Cubans (86 percent) support immediate economic change.  

A Communist Party Congress planned for this year, where economic reform was to be the main topic of discussion, was postponed indefinitely. Meanwhile economic growth on the island, affected by the global economic crisis as well as declines in global nickel prices, slowed from 7.0 percent in 2007 to 4.3 percent in 2008 and is expected to dip to as low as 1.6 percent in 2009.

From a pure economic perspective, the situation on the island is as bad as it’s been in the last 25 years.  In the IRI survey, one-in-five Cubans cited food scarcity as their biggest concern (20 percent), highlighting the long-term impact of problems such as production and imports which have greatly damaged Cubans’ access to food.  The internal dynamics and increased financial pressures have forced the Cuban government to continue implementing new ‘austerity measures’ such as ration card reductions and the closure of ministry cafeterias in lieu of a lunch stipend.  

The country still finds itself struggling to rebound from the three hurricanes that hit in late 2008, causing an estimated 10 billion dollars in damage, while the Cuban state faces a slew of infrastructural problems.  Over the summer months the country faced a return to the frequent power cuts that were common in the 1990s. Bus and train services were cut and state-run shops and households were told to shut-off their power for hours during the day and abstain from consumption during peak hours.

When Raul Castro came to power almost three years ago, there was hope that he would open the door for economic reform in Cuba.  While he did lift some “excessive prohibitions” on items such as cell phones and electronics, eased restrictions on taxi licenses (the number of licenses has increased from 3,486 to 6,334 nationwide, with 1,280 license applications still in process in August 2009), and even allowed some unused state-owned land to be privately cultivated for agricultural production, most of Raul Castro’s promised reforms have amounted to nothing more than concepts and talking points.

After more than 50 years, Cuba's government still controls nearly every aspect of the economy, allowing only very limited free enterprise.  Onerous legal restrictions on private enterprise, including tax increases and the suspension of licenses available for professions previously authorized for self-employment during openings in the 90s, leave citizens with little options outside of the black market to make ends meet.   IRI’s survey demonstrates Cuban desire for the want the opportunity to own and operate businesses (as well as buy and sell their own homes). Anecdotally we also know this to be true, as Cubans commonly demonstrate to visitors their abilities and desires for entrepreneurial opportunities.   Just two weeks ago a group of Cuban citizens from 32 organizations across the island gathered to publically call on the Cuban government to ease bans on private business ownership and free enterprise. These citizens, like their peers, clearly want freedom for greater economic opportunities; the creation of jobs and real income opportunities that they drive themselves.  

Cubans, like others, seek the freedom to be the drivers of their own activities. They want to embrace imagination, innovation and creativity to improve their own lives and determine their own futures.

During his short time as Fidel’s successor, Raul Castro has raised expectations for “changes of structure and concept” in Cuba, but so far those expectations have been unfulfilled, which is reflected in the IRI survey.   

In closed societies there’s always the threat that change comes slow because citizens “don’t know what they don’t know”…this is not the case in Cuba. Increasingly, they know very well how the world operates outside of Cuba, and they want what is currently unoffered to them.