A street in Old Havana, Cuba. Photo: Lin Meilian/GT
To get a horde of Cubans to pour onto the streets and call for revolution like Egyptians did in Cairo's Tahrir Square, all Cuban governments need to do is ban dancing and singing, says Yanet Maciel Sajoint, an 18-year-old music aficionado from Havana, capital of Cuba.
As access to the Internet in Cuba is scarce and restricted to a few tourist hotels, Sajoint relies on a "computer club" to communicate with the outside world. Through the Internet, she has discovered Adele, Lady Gaga and that her country is relatively behind the times.
Cuban youths and the world are eagerly staring back at one another, the young people to learn about what's out there, and the world to figure out whether momentous change will soon sweep the island.
In the past four years, Sajoint has witnessed changes among the people around her: her friends have new cell phones, one acquaintance has opened their own private restaurant, her family are planning to buy their own house, and families who received heavy subsidies from the government have begun to sell extra commodities.
Since 2008, Cuba has embarked on major reforms, or what they call "updating the economic model." However, the purpose is not to change but to stabilize Cuba's economic system.
Whether the changes will have the intended effect remains to be seen. However, President Raul Castro's biggest moves to update the economy have been both welcomed by cash-strapped Cubans like Sajoint, who makes an average of $20 a month, and cash-strapped authorities, who pour around 50 percent of government funding into the public health and education systems.
The major disagreement between the two sides is how deep the reforms should go.
First time for everything
Should one open one's door in Cuba and see a clown standing there, there would be no need for alarm, it would really be just a clown. In 2010, the Cuban government announced that about 500,000 state workers would be laid off, or "relocated," to self-employment.
The government now approves 181 avenues of self-employment. Businesses like pizza delivery, restaurants, tailors, transportation, hair stylist, interpreter or even clowns have begun to appear.
It is not the first time that Cuba has dabbled with privatization, but it is the first time the government has made such sweeping moves to bolster the country's anemic private sector, giving the Cuban people "another way of feeling useful through their personal efforts."
The Ministry of Labor and Social Security had issued 143,000 self-employment licenses in 2010, with another 75,000 following in 2011 and 8,000 currently being processed.
The move is in line with what President Raul Castro said at Cuba's National Assembly in 2010: "We have to end forever the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where you can live without working."
Hugo M. Pons Duarte, vice president of Cuba's National Association of Economists and Accountants, told the Global Times that the biggest challenge to "relocate" the vast amounts of state workers is to change their traditional way of thinking, regarding the relationship between work and wealth.
"If Che Guevara was still alive, he would probably tell them to work a lot and continue to build socialism," he said.
The reforms are moving slowly and painfully partly because in a country where nearly 95 percent of the economic output is generated by State-owned enterprises, the layoff of 500,000 workers, about 4.5 percent of its entire 11 million population, had the effect of an earthquake.
"Nobody will be unprotected," said Duarte, "the social policy and social security for the budget will include a cover for all people."
No money, no honey
One laid-off former public servant, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Global Times he had become an unlicensed taxi driver working around Havana's main hotels.
Song Jiannan, a Chinese student studying at the University of Havana, said that one of his friends once got caught selling some unneeded necessities such as soap and washing powder to others. The student was almost kicked out of the university.
Another challenge in creating private sector jobs for state workers is that many of them lack the skills to operate on their own two feet. Although Cuba now has 143,000 licensed self-employed people, this may not mean a hair stylist has had any real training.
Another challenge is that for the first time, all Cubans now need to learn how to pay income and property tax. Before, only Cubans working for foreign companies were subject to income tax.
Once the reforms began, there was no going back. The changes are now believed to be irreversible.
"We can't follow the path of eastern Europe or the former Soviet Union, maintaining and continuing to perfect socialism is our own choice," said Duarte.
Economic development is now the main task at hand.
The collapse of the Soviet Union has forced Cuba into market-oriented reforms, including allowing foreign investment, creating a private sector and opening up to tourism. Since Raul Castro took over the reins of power from his brother Fidel in 2006, reform has speeded up.
One of the main reasons for this is because the leadership realized that without economic reform, they might lose the two glittering jewels in the country's crown - universal healthcare and education.
With more than two million citizens now aged over 60 and having an average life expectancy of 80 years old, it is estimated that by 2050 Cuba will have the oldest population in the region, according to the World and Pan American Health Organization.
The ever-increasing aging population and rising life expectancy has alarmed the government. Health spending has dropped from $206 million in 2009 to $190 million last year.
The government is also cutting the amount of subsidized food and necessities such as rice and sugar. Some Cuban have expressed their worries about these decisions but the consequences have not been all bad. According to Cuba Health Reports issued back in 2006, the prevalence of overweight and obesity for the population over age 15 in Cuba was 61.1 percent for women and 59.2 percent for men.
Women chat as a cyclist rides past in Havan. Photo: Lin Meilian/GT
Little need for Yankee dollar
Foreign investment is seen as the next big challenge for the country. The government has backed off from its previous hawkish attitude, limiting foreign investors to minority shares in joint ventures and sending out friendly signals.
But Cubans remain picky. "We can't just open the door and let everyone come in and compete, we must carefully choose what we need," said Duarte.
And of course, Cuba is still struggling against an oppressive US economic embargo. But government officials say Cuba is not isolated by the US.
"The US economic embargo has brought us closer to other countries," Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta, deputy director of multilateral affairs for the Cuban Foreign Ministry, told the Global Times.
He said Cuba has constantly proposed bilateral dialogues to the US government but has received no responses.
"It is hard to predict if US will lift the embargo in the near future, but Cuba is in a very important period of history right now. We are working very hard to become more productive and rely less on others," he continued.
Cuba will again submit to the UN General Assembly a draft resolution to end the financial blockade imposed by the US on November 13, according to the Cuban embassy in China, saying the embargo has caused direct economic damage to Cuba worth $108 billion by December 2011.
Earlier this year the US government imposed a $619 million fine on Dutch bank ING for making transactions with Cuba in dollars, the highest fine yet imposed on a foreign bank for doing business with Cuba.
Cuba is strengthening its relationship with its communist allies. China now is the second biggest trade partner with Cuba after Venezuela. The president visited China earlier in July. Some analysts believe Cuba will follow the path of China's economic reforms, but Duarte insists that Cuba is heading in its own way.
"I don't see Cuba becoming the next China," he said. "Unlike China, we have faced 50 years of economic hostility from the US."
The Cuban government is also working carefully to avoid a possible gap widening between the wealthy and the poor and to fight against corruption.
One by-product of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), a network of neighborhood organizations across Cuba that monitors the activities of every person in their respective areas, is that the chances of bribery are, at least officially, very low.
People joke that the CDR is the country's nervous system, if anything happens, the brain is immediately informed, so that if a family gets a new fridge, for example, a bribe is suspected.
Reversals of fate
The uncertainty facing their future does not seem to bother Cubans unduly although many have no idea what economic reforms will bring them.
For example, 49-year-old housewife Nancy Salazar Fernandez said she does not understand the concept of being a real estate speculator. The idea of selling her three-bedroom, two-storey house provided by the government to make some money has never crossed her mind.
"I don't have any savings now, but if I have money, I will need to repair my house," she told the Global Times.
Whether the country likes it or not, once Cuba rolled the dice and opened its doors, it will face a mixture of good and bad consequences. Even though no successor to the Castros has been announced, many Cubans believe that when Fidel, 85, dies, the country will continue to move on steadily.
"It is not a marathon but a relay race," Lazaro Barredo Medina, editor-in-chief of Cuba's Communist Party newspaper Granma, told the Global Times.