Page last updated at 10:04 GMT, Monday, 29 December 2008

Keeping Cuba on the economic road

Geovani Perez's 1959 Buick convertible
Running on ingenuity: Classic cars are still common on Havana's streets

By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

In many ways, this communist island in the Caribbean has managed to survive despite the odds.

Since the revolution which climaxed on 1 January 1959, Cuba has seen the attempted Bay of Pigs invasion, repeated assassination attempts against Fidel Castro, the collapse of its main benefactor the Soviet Union, and a decades-long US trade embargo.

One of the effects of the embargo is that the streets of the Cuban capital, Havana, are still filled with many of the same old American cars that were here when Fidel Castro came to power 50 years ago.

Geovani Perez drives a red and cream 1959 Buick convertible. It was built the year that Fidel Castro came to power. Like much of the Cuban economy, it's still running - if only just.

Javier Perez
They are paying more attention now to small farmers. We were ignored in the past, now we have access to tools and fertilizers
Javier Perez

After years of economic hardship, Cubans have become masters of improvisation.

Geovani's Buick no longer has its original engine. During the fuel shortages its gas-guzzling V8 was replaced by a home-made mix of a Japanese diesel engine and an old Soviet gearbox.

"It's really hard to get parts here," he told me, "We have to machine tool a lot of parts ourselves or make them by hand."

He would rather have a new car, but he couldn't even if he could afford one. The only cars that Cubans are legally allowed to buy or sell are those built before the revolution.

It's the same with housing. Most Cubans have title to their homes and can pass them on to their children but there is no open market to buy or sell land or property.


One of the goals of Fidel Castro's revolution was to create an egalitarian society. Private enterprise was banned and everyone from doctors to factory workers was paid the same.

Today Cuba has one of the most centrally controlled, state-run economies left in the world. It is inefficient and the average salary is barely $25 (17) a month.

Since taking over from his ailing brother - temporarily in 2006 and officially from February 2008 - Raul Castro has initiated some modest but symbolic reforms.

In a keynote speech to the National Assembly earlier this year, he denounced the concept of egalitarianism.

Ploughing the land in Cuba
Small economic reforms have not been mirrored in the political sphere

"Socialism means... equality of rights and opportunities, not salaries. Equality does not mean egalitarianism," he said.

President Castro has ordered that workers should receive bonuses based on productivity. He has also started to offer unproductive state-owned land to private farmers.

Drive out of the capital and one of the most striking aspects of the countryside is how much land has gone to weed.

Cuba should be self-sufficient in food but instead spends $2bn (1.4bn) a year on imports.

It is the small private sector which produces most of the food - farmers like Javier Perez who has a smallholding on the outskirts of Havana.

Mr Perez has done well in recent years. Once he has met his state quota of fruit and vegetables he sells the rest of his bananas, mangos and guava at a farmers' market in the capital.

We need dialogue and the right to argue for or against things. It's the only way of saving the revolution
Felix Sautie

The farm has been in his family for several generations, although part of it was appropriated after the revolution. Now it has been returned and Mr Perez is busy with his pair of oxen, ploughing one of the fields before planting more bananas.

"The land had been lying idle for ages so I asked if I could have it back," he explained.

"They are paying more attention now to small farmers. We were ignored in the past, now we have access to tools and fertilizers."

Politically, though, there are no signs of reform. Cuba remains a one-party state and opposition groups are banned. A few critical voices within the communist party are tolerated.

Felix Sautie is a devout Catholic and has been a Marxist since before the revolution. Now he has put his name to a document entitled "Cuba needs a democratic and participatory system".

"We are going through a very difficult period. You can't keep disqualifying people because they hold a different opinion. We need dialogue and the right to argue for or against things. It's the only way of saving the revolution," he says.


Alongside the old American cars, the roads here are also full of old Russian Ladas.

Drive past any school and the children's uniforms are another reminder of the Soviet era. Primary school children wear red and white, with a red neck scarf. Just like their former Soviet counterparts were, this age group are called the Pioneers.

Education and health are both known here as "triumphs of the revolution".

Graphic showing Cuba's literacy rate

Education is free right the way through to university and post-graduate level and Cuba boasts one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

The health statistics are equally impressive. All the key indicators from infant mortality to life expectancy are among the best in the Americas. Its doctor to patient ratio is one of the highest in the world.

Health care has now become a major export. Cuba sends tens of thousands of doctors and health workers to some of the poorest parts of Latin America and Africa.

Rolando Gonzalez is director of International Co-operation at Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

"From the earliest days of the revolution, one of our objectives was to let other countries in the third world share in our achievements.

"They are resources which we need too, but we share them with those who have nothing. We've got 70,000 doctors, there are only 50,000 for the whole of Africa."

The largest contingent of medical workers is in Venezuela, which President Hugo Chavez pays for in oil.

It is one of the reasons why Cuba can afford to import the fuel which keeps its classic old cars running on the roads.

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