Sunday, April 02, 2017

Cuba Beyond the Cusp of Change (Day 8): Reflections on a Week Long Penn State Graduate Course in Cuba

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2015)

It is my great privilege to have been encouraged to design and hold a week long embedded course program through Pennsylvania State University. My thanks to the office of the Penn State Office of the Vice Provost for Global Programs, Michael Adewumi and Kate Manni, Assistant Director for Embedded Programs, for making this possible.  Thanks as well to  Scott Gartner, the Director, Penn State School of International Affairs, and special thanks to Claudia Prieto (SIA Academic Adviser and Student Services Coordinator) and Rachel Arnold (Assistant to the Financial Officer, Penn State Law/SIA), without whose help and encouragement this program would not have happened. Great thanks as well to our hosts in Cuba, the Centro de Estudios Martianos that went out of its way to enrich the course and the experiences of our students.

This is the last of a series of posts that will develop reflections both on the teaching of embedded programs in Cuba, generally, but more specifically as a way of documenting the way my students and see see Cuba today.  For many years Cuba and its political order was said to be on the "cusp of change" (e.g., here).  Since the start of normalization of relations with the United States, it is quite evident that Cuba has now moved beyond the "cusp" and into the realities of integration within a global system to which it has had both privileged access and been excluded over the last half century.  The re-adjustments in both respects will mark the trajectory of Cuban life for the next generation (compare here, with here).

I started with the embedded course syllabus (INTAF 597C Penn State SIA) and then will post reflections for each day of the journey through the course materials and within Cuba.  The hope is that this provides some food for thought respecting the necessary evolution of political and economic systems, and the constraints within which systems change or expend great energy to stay the same.

Links for full contents HERE.

This post considers our activities on Day 8--Reflections on the Flight Home.

(Pix  Larry Catñá Backer 2017)

Our time in Cuba ended on Sunday, 12 March, when the group returned home to the U.S.  Our travel back to the United States served again to remind us of the promise and challenges facing Cuba--indeed was emblematic of the great test that the Cuban state now faces as it seeks to retain its autonomy even as it seeks a greater integration in the world around it and more intimate relations with its northern neighbor, large enough to overwhelm Cuba even it does not mean to. The day also provided an opportunity to reflect on the course and the trip.  

The principal thoughts on our way back to the United States touched on the unevenness of the Cuban approach to developing its tourist sector.  In this context several insights stood out:

1.  It is difficult to avoid the contrast between the well manicured and well tended approach to the Varadero beaches and the impression that tourists will likely make on their arrival and departure from Cuba. It is well known that the airports lack amenities that are common in other high income and volume destinations.  The roads to and from the airport are not well thought out and do not present Havana at its best.  If impressions help a tourist decide whether to return (and how much to spend) then the first and last impressions of the country leave room for much improvement.  This isn't the same sort of problem that was mentioned on the road to Viñales (or for that matter to Cienfuegos and Trinidad from Havana--though these are more understandably problematic as well). Rather, the impression is subliminal yet important--in the sort of tourist sector that Cuba seeks to maximize its revenues form, the lack of attention to its airports may well cost it tourist dollars. The problem here isn't that conditions are horrible.  That could be explained.  The problem is more subtle and to some extent more corrosive--the Cuba can't do better.  That impression, hard to break and easy to form, is one that Cuban officials worrying about the tourist sector ought to worry about more.

2.  That problem of entry and exits is not just limited to visual impressions and the difficulties of conveyance (which of course are not terrible, just suggestive in a negative way). What makes the problem worse is the lost opportunity for making money that the condition of roads and airports produce.  What do I mean?  The maximization of the value of tourism is the ability of the host state to extract  money from the visitors (for value, of course). It is not clear that the Cuban official who think about tourism have thought about the way that both the travel to and from the airport and the airport facilities themselves might be turned to significantly increase tourist expenditures on the way in and out of the country.  The U.K., Gulf States, and some Asian states have mastered the art of embedding commerce and comfort into their airports, providing mixed services (high and low end) along a broad range of activities that book end the travel experience in positive (and lucrative) ways.  The Cubans have a long way to go.  There is no reason why the Cubans could not do the same, offering a wide variety of food, trinkets, luxury items, and especially in Cuba's case rum and cigars.  Yet little in the way of services is offered.  There is still the feel of late 1980s Eastern European utility at the airport rather than the sort of atmosphere that the Cuban are certainly capable of producing (at places like Varadero). 

3.  That 1980s Eastern European utilitarian feel carries over to the bureaucracy charged with moving tourists from outside through immigration to the waiting areas--in some cases large holding pens that merely increase the desire to leave.  Here is where the lost opportunities for offering services and products are heightened by a bureaucracy that cannot resist the temptation, at times, to hyper enforce "security measures" requiring the confiscation of a number of tourist items that are deemed "dangerous.  One cannot blame the bureaucracy entirely--the horror stories coming from the United States suggests this is a global problem.  But still, the bad taste it leaves with tourists cannot serve Cuban interests.  Sure, one can take the position that this is unimportant because, as I have heard it expressed, there are so many tourists and potential tourists that it would take years to process everyone who wants to come to Cuba the first time. This view might well be naive.  It is oblivious to the damaging effects of reputation; and when a large enough group of grumpy tourists trade unpleasant stories, then equally exotic tropical occasions again begin to look more appealing than Cuba.  The unpleasantness of bureaucracies extend to the petty.  As Cuba seeks to squeeze funds from tourists it has decided to levy a small tax on art work (also used, as one understands this to prevent the national art treasures form being smuggled out of the country).  But the reality is that the steady flow of $3 CUC per canvas tax eventually adds up to an amount that may provide some bureaucratic office with  what for it might be an important source of funds. What makes the levy annoying is that it is sprung after passing through security and at a point when many have used the last of their local currency.  When this is brought to the attention of the usually very polite and sympathetic collector of revenue, it is explained that the tax ought to have been levied at the point of sale.  But of course it is not.  And in typically bureaucratic fashion--rather than fixing point of sale tax collection, the bureaucrats lie in wait to collect at the last possible moment. Again it is this little things that tend to leave a bad taste.  And in a highly competitive tourist sector market, the last thing that one ought to cultivate is bad taste int he mouths of tourists who help establish a destination's reputation.  
(Pix  Larry Catñá Backer 2017)

These cautions, even from a sympathetic traveler, point out the difficulties that the Cubans face as they seek to re-enter global trade and production regimes.  It has very little to do with capacity--it has everything to do with a sometimes stubborn unwillingness to think about the consumer rather than the recipient of income.  That, in turn, may be one of the consequences of the disjunction between markets oriented basis of global tourism and a state ideology that is grounded on the belief that markets are inimical to the political economy of the state.  This is not to suggest that the Cuban political economy is right or wrong. It is rather to suggest that its current orientation has consequences when the state seeks to maximize revenue from customers (and suppliers) who are as deeply attached to markets ideology and the home state is tied to its own. 

More generally, Cuba in a quite unremarkable way, exhibits some of the same strengths and weaknesses of states with which it will increasingly deal, including the United States. These common challenges are not special to Cuba, though they may appear  so in the unique context that is Cuba in this stage in its development.  Let me suggest some of the common challenges that both Cuba and the United States may be sharing now. 

1.  National leaders appear to the population to be disconnected from the realities of the ordinary people. There appears to be a sense that in both states the elites live in well padded echo chambers in which they can reinforce their own views and from which the sounds that are coming from the general population can be muted and distorted.  It also produces a state where even well meaning leaders are likely to either misread or underestimate the character of popular sentiment. This is not to suggest that popular sentiment is necessarily worthy of being followed.  But it does suggest that leaders that misjudge popular sentiments may miss the opportunity to correct misunderstanding, or to respond appropriately, given the nature of the system in which such responses must be structured. 

2.  Popular sentiment can easily move from annoyance to anger.  Anger, though, is relatively easy to manage with an appropriate level of leadership will.  But badly managed this anger can either produce instability (potentially a problem in the United States) or more likely it will produce tendency for the population to detach--to check out--of active participation in the affairs of the nation.  This happens in industry all the time, especially in the West, where the arbitrary exercise of administrative discretion, coupled with what appears to be double standards and excessive privilege among decision makers and exploitation of workers causes workers either to leave the enterprise or to lose all loyalty to the leadership and to become disinterested in the objectives of leadership. This common problem in American industry is showing up more frequently in the political sphere as well.  In Cuba, of course, that has been marked by the steady exit f able bodied individuals to other states. The Cubans are short sighted to the extent they may think that a large community abroad is good for the economy (through remittances etc.). But that is the least of the consequences.  More insidious may be the possibility that Cuban workers  begin to shift their attitude toward their engagement with the state--for example, might it be possible that over the course of the last 20 years or so workers have gone from asking about working conditions in a place of (state) employment to asking instead what can they take  from a potential employer to make the job bearable. When jobs are understood merely as means for taking enough to build side businesses in the "unofficial economy" then the likelihood of the failure of macro-economic policy is likely to follow. One gets a hint of that in the Conceptualización and its provisions to remake the ideal socialist worker. 

3.  It is always a mistake to turn the population against each other.  It is tragic when that occurs by accident or as an unintended consequence of trying to solve another problem. A notorious example might be the way that the problem of migration from Eastern Cuba to Havana might have been attempted.  In that case unauthorized migration produced tension as people seeking work in Havana and more vibrant economic areas were turned away for failure to properly apply for residency.  The partial solution attempted--to recruit police officers for Havana from able bodied people from Eastern Cuba appeared to solve two issues--the lack of police personnel (the question of the causes of this failure to attract local applicants is another story that is worth exploring) and the problem of unauthorized migration.  Unfortunately there appears to be little love lost between these migrants and the residents of Havana (residents of Havana have tended to call these migrants from the East, los Palestinos, "a word that not only reveals the long-standing unequal power dynamic between Havana and eastern Cuba but also contains racialized overtones (here)). And those tensions, perhaps racialized as well as grounded in regional pride, have tended to exacerbate relations between the local population and its police. 

4.  Petty corruption over time can substantially reduce loyalty.  Most states worry about important members of the elite engaging in gross acts of corruption--what the Chinese call the corruption tigers. Yet it is exactly the opposite that tends to effect much greater damage over the long term.  It is the "flies", local officials--bureaucrats arbitrarily exercising discretion, advancing agendas based on favoritism, low level officials who bend the law or assert their authority to advance their personal agendas, who erode popular loyalty.  One hears stories in the United States and in Cuba about this issue.  Here is one that was floating around and heard in several variations when overhearing nearby conversations:  motorists who believe that the local police will arbitrarily change speed limits on well traveled roads to exact fines from travelers that day.  What makes this galling is that the changes are not noticed nor are they signed.  Another speaks to the police officials who use radar guns --they set the gun at a very high speed and then point it at passing cars.  When the car is pulled over the police show the number of the speed measuring device--which is locked on the high speed.  It is hard to argue with a machine--except for example when the police use of machine that is set for a speed that the stopped vehicle is incapable of actually reaching. These stories spread.  And they cause more damage than high officials, who appear oblivious, appear to adequately appreciate.  Similar stories, of course travel around the United States.   

5.  The appearance of equality tends to be more enraging than an honest admission that there is no equality.  One recalls Anatole France's very famous quote:  "La majestueuse égalité des lois, qui interdit au riche comme au pauvre de coucher sous les ponts, de mendier dans les rues et de voler du pain." ["In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread."] Le Lys Rouge [The Red Lily] (1894), ch. 7. This has corroded the solidarity of American society in the last decades; it appears to be having a similar effect in Cuba.  All people are entitled to enter places of public accommodation unless they are not (and in this case it applies to Cubans seeking to enter tourist establishments (here).  All people are entitled to sell their cars, but the prices are so high that few but the well off can actually engage in the activity.  All of the beaches and hotels are open to everyone, yet the prices are so high that locals are effectively barred.  The placement of security everywhere makes it effectively difficult to enjoy even that which is supposedly available to everyone. Restaurants are open to everyone but few can afford many of the ones that only well off Cubans in the nicer sections of town may enjoy.  Unless the Cuban state can effectively blend these realities into its class struggle based ideological foundations it risks either ideological contradiction or a loss of loyalty. 

6. There may be a danger in fostering a tourist based economy for a sophisticated state like Cuba with it potential to insert itself in higher value added sections of global production chains. This is a problem not of markets but of failures in state planning that effectively consigns a sophisticated Republic to the straight jacket of economic monocultures.  Where the state keeps wages low in high value jobs (considered int he context of long term sustainable development) and then effectively allows wages to rise in the tourist sector by encouraging a tip based salary structure, both the class differentiation issues and the labor culture issues will become troublesome.  An economy that is based on tip cultures is not likely to produce either stable wage labor structures nor can serve as a secure foundation for long term and sustainable macro-economic planning.  It is true that the encouragement of such labor cultures may be useful in the short run--people have to eat.  Yet the long term planning framework of Cuba appears to be based on the accumulated effects of seeking immediate and short term solutions to pressing problems in ways that may distract from either the governing ideology or sound long term planning.  That is particularly a shame considering the potential for high end economic engagement on the Island.  A hint of that potential s being partially realized through the Cuban "pharma" sector.  Yet that development has been quite narrow, and it leaves little space for expanding beyond pharma and tourism. In Western states the solution would lie with encouraging market segmentation grounded in national skill sets and resources. And, indeed, a criticism of the current U.S. Administration is its taste for directing economic activity in a particular direction (e.g., reviving industries from the 1970s long chosen for extinction by American markets logic) against the logic of markets.  In centrally planned economies the fault lies with the narrow thinking of central planners. Yet are are no robust means of disciplining bad planning--the Cuban Communist Party has not developed structures for that purpose, and the state has never appeared willingly to assert its authority in that regard.  Perhaps the military--but that raises other sensitive issues. Again, the potential appears to be undercut by the realities of an institutional approach that is decades behind the potential of the Cuban people. With any kind of luck that chasm between theory and reality may be narrowed as Cuba slowly moves toward reform (on its own terms of course). But that is very much a work in progress.

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