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Catholic Church Sponsors Policy Debate in Cuba

Vatican Foreign Minister Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, left, attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Jose Marti monument in Havana, Wednesday, June 16, 2010. AP Photo

The need for economic reforms and for more cohesive changes so that desired reforms don't fall flat emerged in this week's Catholic Church sponsored debate on the current situation in Cuba.

"This is one of the most critical moments we have had," said Omar Everleny, researcher at the University of Havana's Center for Study of the Cuban Economy in a press briefing. However, the crisis, he said, has prompted the most theoretical discussion ever about what is going to happen in Cuba.

Everleny, along with other Cuban intellectuals, religious and non-religious, including three Cuban Americans, is participating in panels on everything from the economy to reconciliation between Cubans on the island and in the Diaspora during a four-day conference that winds up Saturday organized by the Cuban Catholic Church.

"Not even in '95 and '96 [when the collapse of the socialist camp plunged Cuba into an economic freefall] was there such a blunt analysis as there is now about an excess of a million workers and of where they are to go if no investments are made," he told reporters Friday morning.

Workers at the security company SEPSA tell CBS they are being merged with Transval and two other firms offering compatible services cutting employees from 30,000 to 12,000. Cuts such as these are taking place at government ministries and companies in all sectors, as the government tries to trim, what President Raul Castro told parliament were a million unnecessary workers from its payroll.

Everleny further revealed that representatives of the Spanish corporation Mondragon are in Cuba this week holding meetings with City of Havana officials as Cuba studies the possibility of cooperative ownership, part of its reexamination of property rights.

The Mondragon Corporation is a federation of worker cooperatives and is the seventh largest Spanish company in terms of turnover and leading business group in the Basque Country, employing 92,773 in 256 companies by the end of 2008.

The Government is already dabbling with cooperatives in small scale services. Beauty parlors and barber shops have been turned over to their workers in the last year. Typical is a small shop on 44th Street in the Playa neighborhood of Havana. The locale and all the modest equipment are now the property of the two hairdressers and one manicurist working there. As customers show up for their haircut, Yamila explains that she is now working for herself and has raised the cost of a cut from 3 pesos to 20. So far all her customers are willing to pay the new rate and, she says, wish her well.

"It was a shock when she first told me," says one customer who dropped in on her way home from work. "But, I like the way she cuts hair and I have to get it done so I'll pay."

Out of her earnings Yamila must pay the State 1,458.00 pesos a month in rent and taxes and buy the shampoo and other products she uses. But, she says, she is happier than before. Probably less happy is the administrator who formerly handled supplies and who has been laid off.

Until now the state has been the owner of all means of production and retail businesses, but in recent months the Friday edition of the Communist Party daily Granma has run letters from readers who have suggested that bringing in cooperative ownership would not be re-introducing capitalism--letters understood to be trial balloons to test the public reaction.

The current Church conference comes at a moment when relations between the Cuban Catholic Church and the Government are at a high point. The reason for this, one participant suggests, might well be President Raul Castro's desire to focus on problems--such as the economy with its declining growth rate--that are central to his office and remove others that distract from this.

"Raul Castro is a very practical man, he is a problem solver," says Jorge Dominguez, a Latin American studies expert and long time Cuba scholar at Harvard University.

The international outcry over Cuba's treatment of prisoners and the Ladies in White in the first half of this year, opines Dominguez, most likely forced Castro to consider "how do I solve problems that are getting in the way of other things that I would rather achieve...and the Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church turned out to have possible means to address them."

Last month, Cuban Cardinal Jaime Ortega had a more than four-hour face-to-face meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro in which Ortega expressed concern over the treatment of political prisoners and dissidents on the island. That meeting got unusual coverage from the official media with a photo of two men smiling on the front page of Granma.

Since then twelve political prisoners have been moved to jails closer to their homes--a long-time demand of their families--and one ailing prisoner Ariel Sigler has been released. And prior to this, Ortega had negotiated a halt in the government harassment of the Ladies in White, relatives of political prisoners, who had faced a heavy-handed attempt to stop their weekly protest march.

Not all dissidents are pleased with the situation. Several like Sigler and Oswaldo Paya have issued statements saying the government has not done enough and all political prisoners should be released. Paya, in a press release, expressed anger that visiting Vatican Foreign Minister Dominique Mamberti is not meeting with opposition forces during his visit here.

Not everyone is satisfied with the pace of change in the economy either. Everleny says things are being done "very gradually, and I'm not very much in agreement" with this. He admits however that the issues are very complex and things must be done "step by step."

Dominguez says that Cubans and anyone studying Cuba have "discovered is that it is difficult for the Cuban Government to actually implement measures of change, not because there is insubordination, not necessarily because there is active resistance but because it is a government not well accustomed to implementing some of the significant changes" that have been authorized. "This doesn't mean that the intention at the top from Raul Castro is any less genuine. It is that he too is discovering that it is difficult to govern Cuba as he would want," concludes Dominguez.

Dominguez and another participant, Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Latin American scholar at the University of Pittsburgh, single out the government decision to turn over land from state farms to individuals to cultivate as a good decision that falls short.

Dominguez points out that "unless those farmers can purchase seeds, unless those farmers can purchase tools, unless those farmers can purchase tractors, unless they can get credit so that they get all of these things, unless they can sell them at prices that actually cover their costs, giving them the right to use land is not enough."

According to Dominguez, "measures that are isolated in that way, that are not accompanied by other complimentary measures will not work, not because they are bad decisions but because they are insufficient decisions." Castro, he says, has to "think strategically and not in terms of isolated decisions but as packages of decisions that necessarily build on each other" and only then will he be able to implement the policies that he has announced.

Mesa-Lago told reporters that the way the land is being given to individuals creates "uncertainty and a lack of initiative." People will be reluctant to invest in their land because the law is not clear on what happens to their investment once their ten-year lease runs out, he said. Cooperatives and State farms have contracts that last 20 years but, he suggested, it would be better if farmers were given open ended leases as has been done in China and Vietnam and allowed to decide what to plant, to whom to sell and to fix their own prices--all areas still decided by the Cuban State.

Cubans in general have been expressing disagreement with the lack of information coming from the Government on economic reforms. The debate going on in the Church conference is not being reported by the state-controlled media. Many young people say the uncertain economic future awaiting them when they finish their studies is the main reason they emigrate or dream of emigrating. Even parents of undisputed revolutionary pedigrees, who we spoke to, do not necessarily discourage their children from leaving. The consensus is that things are not working well.

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