Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cuba Seen by The New York Times

I first visited Cuba in 1963 for the express purpose of verifying whether the American press was reporting accurately on the Revolution, four years old at the time and a major issue in our foreign policy. It soon became clear to me that the answer to my question was ‘no’. And almost fifty years later, America’s journalistic gold standard, The New York Times has remained true to its Cold War practices.  A friend was kind enough to forward me a July 16 article entitled: “Cuba Hits Wall in 2-Year Push to Expand the Private Sector”.

For starters, this eye-catching title is not reflected in what follows.  “Hitting a wall” implies that something can go no further.  Yet none of the information in the article implies this. Here is my point by point deconstruction:

To say that there is an “aging leadership” is not saying anything new! Raul recognized this in

The Cuban President is in fact taking lessons on how to move from a centrally directed economy to what is known as a ‘mixed’, or part private, part public economy, as his recent trips abroad show:

After Vietnam, Raul Castro went to Peking and Moscow. You don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to guess he’s in search of ways to modify course that have worked in other formerly centralized economies.

The Times article informs us that: “Nearly a quarter of a million (Cubans) have opted to work for themselves over the past 20 months, opening restaurants, snack bars and makeshift shops, driving taxis and fixing cellphones. Together with those who took advantage of an earlier experiment with privatization in the 1990s, about 387,000 Cubans, out of a population of about 11 million, are now self-employed. Cubans are also buying and selling homes and cars among themselves for the first time in 50 years.”

This is the only piece of positive information that isn’t followed by a negative comment. The information that “The government aims to trim state payrolls by 170,000 this year and add 240,000 private-sector jobs” is describes as “a tough goal given that just 24,000 Cubans took out licenses for self-employment in the first five months of the year.” But then, as if recognizing that this comment contradicts the previous paragraph, the writer provides a quote - from unidentified ‘experts’: “Given the lack of progress, the government’s pledge in April to move about 40 percent of the country’s output to the non state sector in five years is less and less plausible.”

The journalist does quote one economist by name, probably because he was born in Cuba: “At the rate they are going, there is no way they will reach that figure,” said Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuban-born professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh.’ But a quick look at Mesa-Lago’s Wiki bio suggests that this is an isolated comment by someone who is in fact supportive of what the Cuban government is .

Referring only obliquely to the American trade embargo the Times explains how goods sold in private shops get to Cuba: ‘With no access to a wholesale market, Cubans turn to friends, relatives and so-called mules for everything from food to trinkets to iPhones. This parallel trade has ballooned to more than $1 billion per year.

The reader thinks: ‘Well, that sounds pretty good.’ But immediately comes the downer: The new entrepreneurs are slapped with a 100% import tariff. And instead of noting that all countries slap tariffs on imports, and quoting a government source on the decision, the Times notes that: ‘State-owned shops were losing business to street vendors’, followed by a throwaway quote from a man in the street: ‘It shows the state isn’t ready to compete with the private sector.’ No Cuban in his right mind would imagine that state-owned shops could compete with private ones bringing in individually chosen goodies. A budding entrepreneur, ‘alarmed’ by the new tariff, says: “Things seem to be tightening up.”

Tightening up?  As in ‘embargo’, perhaps?

“Economists, businesspeople and diplomats” (again those anonymous sources) “believe President Raúl Castro is treading carefully because of resistance from midlevel functionaries reluctant to lose their perks, and from conservative officials nervous about the social and political impact of economic enfranchisement.”

Why would functionaries lose their perks? And what negative social and political impact would opening up the economy have? These empty phrases with nothing to back them up are followed by:

“The Cuban leader, who has sworn off the ‘shock therapies’ that ruptured (sic) the Soviet Union, said in a speech in December that the government would proceed ‘without hurry or improvisation, working to overcome the old dogmatic mind-set and correcting any mistakes in a timely fashion.’”

To the unbiased mind, these words sound eminently reasonable.  But the Times is only interested in discontent, no matter how absurd: “The pace of change has been too slow for people like Yelena López de la Paz, who went bust because of competition, lack of experience and low margins.” Come again? And isn’t competition what capitalism is all about?

Now comes an entirely new angle, which would deserve an article of its own, but here is dismissed in one tantalizing sentence. “With the National Assembly set to meet next Monday,” (July 23) “Cubans are anticipating an expansion of the number of co-ops beyond the existing agricultural ones.”

Coops?  The reader probably wants to know more, but there is no link to the very well-documented article that comes up in a Googe search:

“Separately, (meaning ‘for its part’ or ‘in addition’?) ) the government is turning small, state businesses, including cafes and watch repair shops, over to employees in some provinces. It has lifted a $4 ceiling on the value of contracts between state entities and individuals and is subcontracting work, such as construction, to independent operators.” These steps reflect a worldwide movement toward coops and worker ownership, but are unlikely to influence U.S. policy any time soon.

Jumping back and forth, the article offers this admonition: “Caution is at odds with Cubans’ urgent needs, some say. Orlando Márquez Hidalgo, editor of the Catholic magazine Palabra Nueva in Cuba, said recently that if workers laid off by the public sector failed to find other jobs, their ‘discontent and frustration’ would grow, as would ‘the number of those who dissent or wish to leave. Time is vital,” he said.

Than back to the unhappy entrepreneur: “‘They opened these businesses so that people could survive and so that they, too, would survive, but I don’t think anybody is getting rich. That would be — I don’t know — capitalism’” (sic).

“For a 23-year-old accounting student who runs a busy snack bar in her home in a Havana suburb, restrictions stem from a continued distrust of individual wealth. ‘They just haven’t gotten things organized,’ said Ms. Albite, who gave up on getting a bank loan to buy a $700 refrigerator because she was asked to provide two guarantors, each of whom would have to leave the full amount in escrow until she had repaid.”

Which is it?  Distrust of individual wealth or lack of organization?  I would guess that the precautions over loans are due to the fact that all this is very new for the leadership.

The article ends on a final negative note concerning a development of greater significance than the first hesitant steps of Cuba’s new entrepreneurs: Referring to the expected pullout of a Spanish company that was drilling for oil off the Cuban coast: “The dry well (it encountered) dented Cuba’s prospects of reducing its dependence on Venezuela, which provides billions of dollars’ worth of oil each year in exchange for a range of Cuban services.” (‘Services?’ How about ‘the work of Cuban doctors sent by their government in exchange for oil’?)

Given the Times’ fifty year record on objectivity when writing about Cuba, don’t be surprised if it turns out to have erred in writing off Cuban oil - a tactic increasingly used by the American mainstream media to deny developments that Washington does not like.


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