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Cubans changed their pesos en masse taking advantage of exemption of commission. They propped up country's foreign exchange reserves up by more than USD1,476 million. Last month, Cuban leader revalued peso with 8% and people were given another chance to swap cash they apparently still had lying around. This indicates there is a level of desperation not witnessed before.
The recent changes in economy are believed to be evidencing Cuban leader's despondency at loss of hope that embargo is ever likely to be lifted. "In past two or three years, Cuban economic policy has been on a kind of seesaw; when things looked so desperate as to threaten regime seriously with street demonstrations or acts of civil disobedience, regime grasped at a few straws of economic reform. The moment crisis seems to have passed, government has sought to reassert control", according to Mark Falcoff, a scholar at American Enterprise Institute.
Another sign that Cuban leader is serious in effecting changes to his economy is his attempt to improve people's spending power by doubling minimum wage to around USD10 a month. To outsiders, this is more important as a sign of willingness that he is working on making real tangible changes, rather than measure's contents. As a measure improved minimum wage is not really making all that much difference to average worker in this country, which has seen productivity drop to incredibly low levels mainly due to poor organizational structures.
Cubans say recent economic changes to benefit them are a drip in ocean. Their economy really is at end of its tether. Hampered by outtages in electricity, parts of Cuban population also do not even have access to running water. Transportation is a big problem in nearly every industry and vegetable crops more often than not are rotting away on field.
This is not to say Cuban leader is not hoping for health - his wish for trade embargo to be lifted so his country can trade with US is an expression of this, even though it must undermine very reasons for Cuban revolution.
In estimating how people are likely to cope in near future, with Cuban system that impoverishes and controls every aspect of their lives, there are two options. The short answer is in this case more correct than long one; it simply doesn't. The highly controlled dictatorship rule which does not allow for anyone to speak their mind might however have seen its better days, even if people of Cuba are unlikely to effect this.
The long answer looks to be as slow as it is long. It is real change. If this is coming about it might just be very slow and prone to misinterpretation from all sides. Even though corruption will be taken for positive moves and vice versa, it is well worth keeping up with what's going on in this country.
It is likely that even staunch anti capitalist Castro who abhorrs workings of market rule, is not entirely able to avoid introducing some capitalist elements into his country's economy. The fact that in contrast to over a decade ago, recent Cuban decree barring use of dollars in Cuban economy, falls short of penalising possession of dollars as well could be taken for a sign. As a matter of fact, anyone who has an official dollar bank account will be "fully guaranteed" by central bank. And funds can be withdrawn in form of greenbacks or local currency at any date without charge, according to Joseph Potts.
The convertible peso is mainly aimed at established businesses in country which are compelled to conduct trades in pesos rather than dollars. The currency ban also affects cash remittances and tourism.
The government also announced that Cuban state companies would have to sell central bank any hard currency received from exports or domestic sales.
It is estimated that annually, some USD1 billion is sent to Cuba from US. The 10% commission fee on dollar conversions are likely to make Cubans remitting cash back to Cuba to change dollars into Euros or Swiss Francs prior to sending them on. The move that is aimed at hurting US dollar, but which is also enriching leadership of country at same time.
Castro is hoping that forcing population to depend on home currency might also help domestic investment which is so low that companies are almost invariably unable to raise enough capital to keep their operations afloat. This leads to a high number of unfinished investment projects, excess productive capacity (factories forced to close or work only a few days or hours per week) due to lack of raw materials and supplies, progressive deterioration of industrial base, as well as major transportation problems for workers.
The transportation and communications infrastructure is in shambles and continues to deteriorate. Impoverishment and environmental degradation are spreading. There is a huge and widening housing shortage. The only good commodity Cuba has are its people, who often turn out to be surprisingly well-educated even though their educational system is highly ideologically tinted.
There is a lack of almost everything in Cuba and this is translated in a scarcety of domestic financial assets in which people can save without throwing their money away. Hence huge amounts of dollars that were changed last year, which dwarfed country's second largest foreign exchange earner, tourism, which brings in little more than USD2 million a year and is relied on heavily.
What remains a mystery hidden beneath restrictions on freedom of speech is why Cubans are so keen for Americans to lift their embargo. It is no doubt likely that once US companies are allowed to trade with Cuban companies, first effect will be tonnes of US tourists flooding Caribbean beaches. One can't help but deduct that revolution's original goal of getting Yanquis out of Cuba somehow is conveniently being forgotten. Perhaps next phase in relationship between US and Cuba is going to be entitled 'Cuba-US, geriatric harkings' - If Cuban people don't rise up first, that is.
Angelique van Engelen is a former Middle East correspondent and currently runs a writing agency http://www.contentclix.com. She also participates in a writing ring http://clixyplays.blogspot.com/