Being Rich Is Banned in Cuba / Iván García
Ivan Garcia, 8 June 2017 — The die is cast. At the special session of
the National Assembly of People’s Power held on May 31 and June 1 at the
Palace of Conventions, delegates have, as expected, approved the
economic plan for 2016 to 2021 and a national plan for economic and
social development for 2030.
Were it not so serious, it would seem like a sketch from the late night
American comedy show “Saturday Night Live,” especially since the
parliamentary debates were more farcical than rational.
Numerous “discussions” were televised. Not even Pánfilo — an elderly
character created by the famous Cuban comedian Luis Silva and a man
obsessed with his ration book — generates as many contradictions and
Committees made up of so-called peoples’ representatives held debates,
attempted to change one word in a paragraph, tweaked a concept and
championed trivialities in order to justify two days of meetings in an
air-conditioned facility where attendees were provided with breakfast,
lunch and dinner along with breaks for coffee and mineral water.
Mercenaries of a different kind. No parliamentarian asked the recently
reappointed economics and planning minister, Marino Murillo, to specify
just how much capital one would be allowed to accumulate in Cuba. In
other words, how rich could one be?
A few official reports offer some clues. The regime is already preparing
a series of measures aimed at limiting or restricting the prosperity of
citizens and small business owners.
Lucio, an economist, believes that, “in addition to legal restrictions,
they will issue repressive rulings and adopt tax provisions to curtail
wealth. Those who accumulate certain sums of money that the government
considers excessive will be subject to a severe fiscal knife. In the
worst cases, they will face forfeiture or criminal sanctions. I see no
other way to curtail the accumulation of capital.”
There is a dreadful incongruity to the new legislative stew. While the
island’s ruling military junta grants approval and legal status to
private businesses, it also uses a range of prohibitions to limit their
growth and to prevent them from prospering or making money.
The island’s chieftains are paralyzed by fear that the state will lose
its control over society.
They are worried that, as successful mid-size businesses grow, they will
move large sums of money that could exceed a million dollars and create
supply chains that will benefit society.
Or that the owner of a restaurant will open two or three branches,
expanding within the same city or into other provinces, and acquire a
million dollars or more in funding through bank loans or other sources.
Of course, if a private businessman plays his cards right, he will do
well, even earning annual profits in the six figures. That is the basis
of national economic growth. As long as they respect the law and pay
their taxes, bring on successful private business ventures!
But the government has a specific strategy. The only companies that may
accumulate millions of dollars and enter into joint-ventures with
foreign firms are state-owned enterprises. In other words, GAESA-style
military-run conglomerates or others of the same ilk. It is the state
playing with capitalism.
I did not hear any voices in the boring, monotone Cuban parliament
asking for explanations or details about how Gaviota and Rafin’s
multi-million dollar earnings would ultimately be used.*
By 2020 Gaviota will operate 50,000 hotel rooms as well as marinas, golf
courses and stores. Within the next ten years the military-run
conglomerate will become the largest hotel group in the Americas yet the
whereabouts of its revenues are unknown.
Rafin, which according to sources is an acronym for Raúl and Fidel
Investments, is an opaque corporation in a country with a planned
economy that has never stated publicly what its sources of capital are.
This mysterious company bought Telecom Italia’s stake in a joint venture
with the Cuban government that was intended to modernize the state-owned
telecommunications monopoly ETECSA. Rafin is now the sole owner of ETECSA.
What is it doing with its multi-million dollar profits? Are
parliamentary deputies not concerned that ETECSA has not created a
social fund to benefit primary, secondary and pre-university schools,
whose makeshift computer labs lack internet access?
Furthermore, they did not complain about the high prices ETECSA charges
for its mobile phone, wifi and internet services, a subject much
discussed in online discussions sponsored by official media outlets and
about which readers have expressed their frustration. Or about the
alarming prices for goods sold at hard currency retail stores. Or, even
more scandalous, the prices of cars on display in large, well-lit showrooms.
Nor did any parliamentarians demand that state-run companies lower the
prices of household appliances, televisions and smartphones at places
like the Samsung store on 3rd Avenue and 70th Street in Miramar in
western Havana, where a Galaxy S7 edge costs the equivalent of $1,300
and a seventy-inch 4K television goes for around $5,000.
The fact that the state is planning the lives of its citizens through
2030 seems like science fiction when no one knows how we will make it
even to year’s end. The average Cuban pays no attention to parliamentary
debates or to party politics.
People often look the other way. Apathy, dissimulation and indifference
to national affairs pave the way for regime’s excesses.
Workers attend labor union meetings where, without giving them any
thought, they approve economic proposals they do not want and do not
understand. And in their neighborhoods and districts, they vote
mechanically for candidates to the National Assembly who solve nothing.
Cuba has become a nation of domesticated zombies.
Everyone complains quietly at home to his or her family members,
neighbors and friends. But in workplaces and schools, they feign loyalty
to the government, especially when it comes time to have a document
approved or to vote in sterile elections. We have gotten what we deserve.
Deng Xiaoping, a diehard communist and father of China’s economic
reforms, understood that making money was neither shameful nor a crime.
“It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white. What matters is if
catches mice,” he said in 1960. In Cuba’s dictatorship, the cat wears
olive green battle fatigues.
*Translator’s note: Gaviota operates a chain of tourist hotels
throughout the island and offers other tourism related services.
According to Bloomberg, Rafin SA “operates as a diversified financial
services company.” In 2011 it bought Telecom Italia’s 27% stake in the
Cuban state telecommunications monopoly ETECSA for $706 million.
Source: Being Rich Is Banned in Cuba / Iván García – Translating Cuba –