An Incomplete Panorama From the Island in Times of Pandemic
By Rainer G. Schultz
Every night, when I look out of the window of my cozy home, everything seems so very quiet, almost silent. In Cuba, that’s very unusual. Indeed, one of the things I missed the most when I moved from Harvard to Havana was the tranquility. Normally, one hears shouts, music or the sounds of animals who have given a rural character to Cuba’s cities since the crisis of the 1990s. The noise of cars, trucks and buses that operate with museum-worthy engines. Then there are the smells, the smell of humidity mixed with gasoline and sauteed garlic, the smell of coffee mixed with ground split peas wafting from the corner store, the smells of the flowers, of the sea, of Cuban-ness.
The last time I heard a comparable silence was the day Fidel Castro died, November 25, 2016. Nine days of official commemoration followed. In those days, one couldn’t go out drinking or play loud music in public. And everyone was working less—although obviously for other reasons.
Now, sixty days after the first case of coronavirus was detected in Cuba, that tranquility has returned. But it is a different tranquility, more insecure, more uneasy. In fact, in some parts of the city, it seems as if nothing has changed. Many people are on the streets in spite of the restrictions and social distancing. The lines are immense. Particularly in the mornings when the stores open. Everyone is sporting masks, Cuban-style. People who don’t wear masks are fined. Some of the masks are homemade; others are manufactured by state enterprises or by the new private sector which has reinvented its activities in the time of pandemic.
No one knows how long this new special period in times of pandemic (like the one in the 1990s when the Cuban economy collapsed after Russia withdrew much of its financial support to the island and the United States increased its sanctions against the island) will last if tourists do not come and Cubans in the diaspora stop sending remittances. Or if U.S. sanctions become even more severe in the wake of the upcoming elections. One of the country’s hopes is the Cuban doctors now helping out throughout the world. More than 2,000 doctors and health workers have been sent to more than twenty countries in response to the pandemic, with a total of 37,000 working in 67 countries overall. As described by many newspapers around the world, the Cuban policy is successful medical diplomacy that helps the state budget, including free medical education for the doctors themselves. It is also real solidarity, to risk one’s own life to save others in foreign lands. President Trump tries with all his might to construe this source of income as a criminal act and to put pressure on new allied governments in the region. Brasil, Bolivia and Ecuador have already expelled the Cuban medical collaboration from their territories. And it is also because of this that the U.S. government prohibits its citizens from traveling freely to the island and has restricted the amount of remittances that can be sent legally to Cuba.
Every night at 9 p.m. after the nightly news, I go with my Cuban family to the street to thank health workers with a round of applause. A civic reaction that emerged spontaneously in some neighborhoods and is now coordinated nationally. Seeing and hearing the applause of my neighbors gives me a sense of community, of sharing a feeling, an aspiration, a hope. For me, the 9 p.m. applause is not only for the doctors and nurses on the frontline, but also for those who with their daily work guarantee the welfare of those of us who for different reasons are staying at home. Those who produce, process and distribute food and who collect the waste, who produce energy, the necessary transport, the technology to communicate, all those receive their deserved applause.
This minute of applause also helps one to reflect. To imagine how nurses and doctors and their families feel, their fear—and their hope. In Cuba, a country with a cult of heroism, the fact that the national news recently made a report focusing on the fear doctors feel when treating covid-infected people and that this fear is something normal, human, testifies that even the way of narrating these stories are changing.
Dr. Durán—Symbol of Cuban Medicine
Television and radio are still the principal space of communication in this country. There are eight national channels and 17 regional channels, including some municipal ones. All are public, or as they are sometimes called, state media. There is no advertising, and indeed a political and educational orientation that is more or less direct. Every day at 9 a.m., the voice of Dr. Francisco Durán García, head of Epidemiology for the Ministry of Public Health, is heard throughout Cuba on radio and tv. This graying doctor from Santiago de Cuba, where he successfully directed a sanitorium for AIDs patients, and who has worked on Cuban medical missions in Angola, gives a face to the pandemic. His voice is tranquil and serious. He represents science in Cuba. And also the hope. If there were public polls in Cuba, I would bet my house that the immense majority of Cubans would express confidence in this man, his message and his warnings. And through him, in Cuba’s epidemiological response toward this new virus that has sickened the world.
I recently read a profile about the man. His humility. Walking every day to work in jeans and a simple shirt, without a jacket or tie, although with a medical gown that bears his name and a little Cuban flag. Every day, he sits patiently to share information and to respond to questions in a press conference. Afterwards, he takes a walk through La Rampa, a Cuban neighborhood that is bustling in normal times.
In the first weeks of the pandemic, the press conferences were with journalists, then with journalists wearing masks, later with fewer journalists, and now without the presence of journalists, but with journalists able to submit questions beforehand through the internet. This new modality also opened the possibility for the public to submit questions to Dr. Durán and other specialists through email or by telephone. These press conferences are also a form of popular education about the epidemic, its origins, symptoms and possible treatment. The program is serious, tranquil, without advertising, without the need to try to curry favor with advertisers or gain electoral votes. The press conference often refers to studies made in other countries and measures taken around the world. The press conference is supplemented by a website with more information for the public.
The Internet and a New Way of Governing
This year, 7.1 million Cubans, or 63% of the population have access to internet, according to official data. Of these, almost four million consult the internet on their cellphones, and more than seven million are active on social media (although many do not have sufficient income to maintain a balance). Internet service on cellphones only began in December 2018. This innovation has been a small cultural revolution. With increased connectivity on the island through hundreds of public Wifi points, the monopoly of the state press had been broken. But now people get up and find out the news in a different way. It is necessarily more transnational and more diverse. Although, clearly, most of its citizens, as in other countries, do not read academic journals or the investigative press, but inform themselves through Facebook and sensational news. This new form of consuming information is described as the Dunning-Kruner effect, characterized by the abundance of people who perceive themselves as experts just because they have a little bit of information, or, as the political scientist Rafael Hernandez has observed, “self-styled epidemiologists, who pulsate through the social media and digital publications.”
But this also has a positive, critical, political and emancipating effect. The daily presence of Cuban politicians on the television and internet characterizes, according to Hernández, a new style of government since it took possession in April 2018: “this fact has exposed more its people, its way of thinking, speeches, defects and qualities than that of any other cabinet in the in the living memory of the immense majority of Cubans.” Because of this, the epidemic also creates a “context without precedent of political communication between institutions/leaders and community/citizens.”
Then there is the enormous cultural creativity in Cuba in the time of coronavirus. And the humility with which it is presented: since there are no public performances, the youth of the Cuban ballet Acosta Danza presents short videos of choreographies filmed from their houses; musicians, including Grammy winners such as Omara Portuondo sing from home– transmitted by internet and also, since not everyone can pay internet all of the time, broadcast on television. But without debates about where the money will go and who gains and is benefited. Simply public culture. Writers read from their books so those who do not have access to the works can listen at home. Others put their publications on line. Free. Even Cuban museums are offering virtual visits. Although these tours may not be as sophisticated as in other countries, it is a beginning. In a certain way, Cuba now is recuperating the time it has lost before—for several reasons—in the virtual world. In this sense, the crisis also becomes an opportunity.
To avoid long lines—the permanent source of affliction for every Cuban household—there has been a great advance, although not yet enough, toward online shopping on a national level. And without Jeff Bezos. Until very recently, the Cuban internet was not commercial. No one could buy anything directly online. In Cuba, credit cards don’t exist (although there are debit cards). To give the internet an economic function was equivalent to another revolution. And revolutions, although they always have a sense of urgency, take their time. The generalized scarcity and the lack of basic necessities such as food, soap and other hygiene products, and gasoline for transportation make this endeavor a necessity but without having functional digital platforms nor the coordination at a national level to process the demand it is a difficult undertaking. For critics, this is sufficient reason to damn the possibility of internet shopping platforms. For optimists, it is another step forward in the modernization of the country. Much more collaboration would be possible with the country’s many talents, especially in the private sector—computer programmers, taxi drivers and others could cooperate with the state to speed up the development of a service that is a necessity in times of pandemic. The Cuban state is conscious of the problems and is disposed to consider new forms of action and cooperation. There is a public debate about deficiencies and what can be done to improve the situation. And there are many talents working in difficult circumstances to improve things. To think in new forms of cooperation between the state/public and the private sectors is a pending task, and one that is underway. As Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel recently said in reference to newly emerging public-private partnerships, “We have good experiences in these moments of the pandemic,” explaining that, “in a quicker, more decisive, more organized manner, we are implementing a group of pending issues.” But it is that pending task that Cubans in the time of pandemic are now facing. The new Cuban constitution, approved by plebiscite in 2019, in its article 22 recognizes private, state and mixed property, but leaves “what is relevant to its implementation and scope” to future laws.
From the Pandemic to Panacea: Cuba’s Economic Debate
To unclog the reforms underway to improve Cuba’s socio-economic situation, two fundamental problems exist: the punitive U.S. sanctions and the disagreement about the scope and timing of the pending reforms in Cuba to reach its true potential, or, as Fidel Castro said, to change everything that out to be changed.
It is also why President Obama in his last year in office and right before he visited Cuba came to the conclusion and which he declared publicly, “Lift the embargo!” because it has done incredible damage, not only to the economy, but to the mentality.
Cuba is a country of contradictions: being an underdeveloped island nation with fewer inhabitants than New York City it sends doctors to help European countries, but does not have the problem of salaries or food resolved in its own country. Of course, there are two key factors. As I have described elsewhere, the island never in its history—since European colonization—has been self-sufficient in feeding itself. And it is the victim of the most comprehensive sanctions since the U.S. government imposed them in 1960 with the express purpose of creating “economic dissatisfaction, suffering, hunger and desperation” as the most efficient way to “disaffect the Cuban population from the revolution.” It is also true that many of the measures taken over the years to diversify and improve national production have not rendered the desired productive and sustainable results.
Now, during the pandemic, an interesting debate is taking place among Cuban economists on the island and overseas: how to take advantage of this crisis to improve the country and its economy. The risk is enormous. But there is also an opportunity and above all, a great need and urgency. An accumulation of announced reforms that have not been implemented, enormous economic distortions because of different systems of exchange rates, subsidies to public enterprises to avoid the social cost of laying off workers because of inefficiency and the price controls imposed by the state that lead to parallel economic activities, markets and savings—all these issues create important distortions in the Cuban economy.
A consensus exists for more decentralization, less bureaucracy, and more institutionalization of the non-state sector, whether it be in the form of cooperatives or private enterprise, including small- and medium-sized firms.
The difference is in the role and scope that the private sector should or should not have and the limitations imposed by the state. How large can medium-sized enterprises be? What role can and should foreign investment play in the activities of the country? The country’s leaders fear a neoliberal shock, massive privatizations and radical liberalization, which would leave many unemployed. They contend that the countries that have been able to best confront the current crisis are those with a state capable of intervening and directing a robust public health sector. The declared goal is to reach a 21st-century “prosperous and sustainable socialism” with a society well-connected by computers, a mixed economy with priority given to the state sector to protect people from the unequal effects of the market and the private sector which are recognized as innovative and necessary components of the economy but that need to be regulated and guided by the public interest. But how can these goals be reached in the midst of a pandemic? In recent declarations, President Díaz-Canel said, “We are not denying the existence of the private sector, but as a complement to the state economy, and really in what we have been implementing, we have given more liberty to the private sector than to the state one.” The president said, the focus is now to “unleash” the state sector without “putting brakes on the private sector.”
According to the Economic Commission on Latin America, ECLAC the region’s economy dropped a minimum of three to four percent in 2020. The world tourist organization UNWTO forecasts that tourism could experience a sixty to eighty percent decline this year and not recuperate until 2021. Cuba is a country of tourism. In a recent presentation for the Cuban Studies Program at Harvard, the Cuban-American economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago explained that the Cuban economy depends primarily on the export of professional services (in 2015, about US$8 billion), then remittances (in 2018, about U.S.$3.7 billion ) and in third place, tourism (in 2018, about US$ 2.9 billion). While the Obama administration publicly recognized the impressive help given by Cuban doctors in places with scarce resources, as in the campaign against Ebola, the government of Trump knows that this income (and that of tourism and remittances) are essential for the survival of the social and political system of the island, and is therefore damaging these sectors by any and all means possible, aggressively reducing the income from these sectors.
Elections in the United States are scheduled for November. If U.S. citizens reelect Donald Trump, more economic pressure and a more aggressive policy towards Cuba is expected. Although there are some who say if Trump visited North Korea to get a “better deal,” maybe the old casinos in Cuban hotels and the new golf courses on the island could provoke desires to focus less on ideology and more on possible business deals. As a candidate in 2016, he declared on the record that he was open to putting his self-branded hotels in Cuba. If the Democratic candidate wins, a return to the policy of rapprochement and cooperation is expected—in spite of the differences between the two nations.
Meanwhile, the pandemic’s course in Cuba is more favorable than the forecasts, thanks to strict controls, regular medical surveys, regular monitoring of Cuban households by medical students and forced isolation. Until now, 78 deaths due to the virus have been reported in Cuba, 98.8% of those hospitalized recuperate favorably, and already 60 percent of people with the virus have recovered. The new infection rate has fallen to fewer than 20 people per day. Doctor Durán admitted that he did not want to share this news because he feared fellow Cubans might get lax. The curve of new contacts is now in decline and in a few weeks, there should be a rate of minimum transmission. The forecast for the Cuban economic panorama is not so favorable. External factors are adverse. But public debates continue about the need for change, reform and more innovation in the long term, including emancipation from a tourism-dependent economy (which in reality was initially an emergency response during the fall of the socialist bloc, which led to a huge economic decline). There is also a desire to reduce or eliminate dependence on outside aid towards a policy of development, based on biotechnology and medicine, productive and sustainable agriculture, informatics and small-scale industry. These discussions are a sign of hope. After the debate about coronavirus, the economic debate will return with more force in an effort to save and improve the country. And it is certain that the internet will produce many more self-styled economists with recipes to save the country. Some of these recipes will come from Washington. Others from Beijing. The dialogue will be interesting and necessarily international.
Rainer G. Schultz is a historian and director of the Consorcio de Estudios Avanzados en el Exterior (CASA) in Havana, in cooperation with Casa de las Americas, of which Harvard is a member. He received his doctorate in the history of Latin America from Harvard University with his work on the transformation of the education in Cuba. He has lived, researched, taught and published in and on Cuba for the last twenty years. He was the coordinator of Harvard’s Cuban Studies Program from 2012-2105. He is also a Research Associate with the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard. firstname.lastname@example.org