Cuba's coming co-operative economy?

Havana billboard: “We are working – and you?”

By Marcelo Vieta

July 18, 2012 -- The Bullet -- In 2011, I made two trips to Cuba to study the new co-operatives. In June I was kindly invited by Camila Piñeiro Harnecker, a professor at the University of Havana and one of the country's leading experts on its co-operative movement, to participate in two conferences. In December, Wendy Holm (Canadian agronomist and co-operative facilitator working in Cuba for the last dozen years) extended an invitation to participate in the “Walking the Walk: Cuba's path to a more co-operative and sustainable economy” workshops, again in Havana. Both trips had international guests share experiences and knowledge of the co-operative organisational model with our Cuban hosts. The backdrop was, on both occasions, the recently proposed economic reforms coming out of los nuevos lineamientos (the new guidelines) of the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, completed and released on April 18, 2011.

Both of these experiences were eye opening and inspirational, and full of promise for a possible broadening of the co-operative movement in Cuba, while building lasting transnational networks of co-op practitioners and researchers from Cuba and afar. In a nutshell, these trips suggest that Cuba stands on the brink of making a major effort to build a co-operative-based sector. This recalls some of the classic thinking of Robert Owen, William King, George Holyoake and even Karl Marx, on a co-operative based society. But, undoubtedly, major challenges along this path remain for Cuba, as they have for other state-centred command economies as they entered a period of structural transformation. The following is a report from these field trips and the discussions at the conferences.

* * *

Almost instantly upon arriving in Cuba in late June of 2011 I noticed the wherewithal of its people, especially their tenacity to get by on little. In many ways, I discovered, Cubans have already been forging an alternative socio-economic reality for decades now. For instance, we can think of how they revolutionised their agricultural sector during and after the Special Period, making Cuba the first nation to adopt a predominantly organic farming sector rooted in agricultural co-ops and the notion of subsidiarity (i.e., economic activity with a strong focus on the local and managed by local people).

The two conferences I presented at in June 2011 were exceptional, if ultimately a bit surprising for me in ways. First, I participated in the “Corporate Social Responsibility, Cooperatives, and Local Development” conference on June 21 with a diverse group of co-op practitioners, social entrepreneurs, and social and solidarity economy researchers from different parts of Latin America and Canada. Organised in part by the University of Havana's Centre for Studies on the Cuban Economy, a Latin American NGO called Fundación AVINA, and a US social entrepreneur Eric Leenson. At this first conference I presented some of the results of my ethnographic and political economic work with Argentina's empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores (worker-recuperated enterprises, or ERTs).

Many Cuban academics and officials working with co-ops and local development initiatives in attendance seemed to be fascinated with the experiences of workers taking over businesses in trouble in Argentina, based on their comments to me afterwards. They were interested to know more about how to make autogestión (self-management) work in a country that has had no real experience with co-operatives in general outside of agriculture, a sector where they have engaged in promising experiments with Cooperativas de Crédito y Servicio and Cooperativas de Producción Agropecuarias (producer and consumer co-ops in the farming sector also known as CCS and CCP respectively) and Unidades Básicas de Producción Cooperativa (worker-run and state-owned co-operatives that service the agricultural sector, known also as UBPC) (Piñeiro Harnecker, 2011a).

These Cuban academics and officials I spoke with looked at the experiences of Argentina's workers starting co-ops from scratch as similar to what many Cubans might have to embark on in the next months and years. This is especially the case, they shared with me, given that hundreds of thousands of Cuban workers will be transitioned from empleo estatal (“state employment”) to empleo no-estatal (“non-state employment”) over the next few years.

Indeed, the vision of the nuevos lineamientos of the Cuban Communist Party is to increase the non-state employment sector from 16 per cent of Cuba's workforce (2010 figures) to 35 per cent of Cuban workers by 2015. This would mean that in three years, if this projection holds, Cuba will have 1.8 million non-state workers employed either as cuentapropistas (the self-employed), trabajadores asalariados (salaried workers) or cooperativistas (cooperators) (Piñeiro Harnecker, 2011a).

While many of these new, non-state workers have the potential of eventually working in an expanded, non-rural co-operative sector, they could equally be employed in an expanding private sector. There is room in the economic reforms for a boom in private businesses, as well (sections 11 to 24 of the lineamientos), together with a continuation of “state-funded entities” (sections 30 to 34). Regardless, it is also undeniable that sections 25 to 29 of the lineamientos leave ample room for the potential mushrooming of the co-operative movement. “Grade 1 co-operatives”, section 25 begins:

“shall be established as a socialist form of joint ownership in various sectors. A co-operative is a business organization that owns its estate and represents a distinct legal person. Its members are individuals who contribute assets or labour and its purpose is to supply useful goods and services to society and its costs are covered with its own income.”

While there are, as yet, no guarantees that a boom in “Grade 1 co-operatives” will necessarily emerge, there is growing interest afoot in Cuba to encourage such a new, non-agricultural co-operative sector. The strong language on co-ops in the lineamientos is offering much inspiration to some in this regard. But the interest in co-ops extends far beyond the decrees of the lineamientos. One Cuban professor suggested to me that co-operatives could take over the economy in sectors such as food provisioning, consumer services, housing and sanitation. Another group of Cuban researchers I spoke with believe that worker co-operatives of all stripes could particularly blossom in areas such as tourism, public transportation, manufacturing and community services. “In the short term”, reads section 217 of the lineamientos, “the industrial productions shall be re-oriented to meet the demands from different forms of production (particularly co-operatives and self-employees)”.

What are some of the lingering concerns among some Cubans that aspire to expand the co-operative sector, then? The general answer given to me by co-op developers and researchers was that Cubans lack knowledge in co-operative organising and values. Yes, they underscored, many Cubans do indeed have experience with agricultural co-ops or urban agricultural co-ops (organopónicos), and most have been involved in “popular power” initiatives, or with community-based committee experiences for some time. But most of these experiences, I was told, have been, up till now, top-down or party led.

The Cubans I talked with during my first visit in June 2011 wanted mostly to know how to co-operatively organise and practically manage themselves bottom up, and how to start teaching each other the ins and outs of forming co-operatives “from below”, from out of their own initiatives. From Cubans who I spoke with, there is, on the one hand, a pragmatic sense that they must know how to manage themselves better and produce adequately without government quotas and such. At the same time, we discussed and debated how exactly the “non-state” sector might emerge in Cuba, as well as the virtues of co-operatives and the risks of opening up their economy to free markets and outright capital-based and investor-owned firms.

During these conversations, I tried to focus on my observation that, given what I know of the explosion of the social and solidarity economy in other parts of Latin America in recent years, Cubans too could make a go of a non-state enterprise sector that still respects key aspects of their socialist project by thinking about “co-operativising” their economy. This would include co-operative production, co-operative service delivery, co-operative exchange or “markets” and co-operative banks or credit unions. Moreover, we agreed, this would allow Cubans to hold on to much of the social values and collaborative spirit they already have within their existing version of socialism.

The potential for a social and solidarity economy

The second conference I presented was at the Centre for Studies on the Cuban Economy (CEEC in Spanish). It was its annual conference of mostly Cuban economists, government officials and municipal development officials. This conference was a slightly different but equally rewarding experience. There, I gave what I thought was a straightforward conceptual definition of the “social and solidarity economy”. In this presentation, I made an effort to bridge Canadian, European and Latin American conceptualisations while connecting notions of the social and solidarity economy to actual on-the-ground experiences in Latin America. Drawing from these traditions, in this presentation I defined the social and solidarity economy as:

“...social and economic practices and organisations that are not investor-owned or for-profit entities (although its organisations can make and draw on surpluses), nor government-owned or controlled (although its organisations may receive government funding), and that operate with the values of provisioning, first and foremost, for the socioeconomic needs of members. Known also loosely as the ‘third sector,’ social and solidarity economy organisations tend to have social objectives (such as sustaining and creating jobs, provisioning less expensive or environmentally sound consumer goods and services, facilitating the social or economic capacities of individuals and communities, etc.) and are usually organised in some sort of democratic fashion where each member has a vote or say in the operation, governance, and goals of the firm.”

The Cubans who listened to my presentation were very interested to know more about the social and solidarity economy but seemed not to be as familiar on the whole with a working definition of the concept. This was the case, as some Cuban academics told me, because they haven't needed such a concept until now with a Cuban state and economy that is already “socialist” and “socialised”. This was surprising to me at first, especially given Cuba's already-existing social economic practices that in many ways have been part of their daily reality for decades now. Think, for example, of their mostly do-it-yourself and community-based car parts manufacturing and repair shops, or the common practice throughout Cuba of sharing scarce commodities and products among neighbours.

Here some rich debates emerged amongst us concerning the terms socialised, social and socialist; how a social and solidarity economy is different or similar to what Cubans have been practicing under state socialism; and how such conceptualisations of the social and solidarity economy could help Cubans think about a new socialism that connects the broad economic reforms the Communist Party is proposing with the everyday practices of Cuban people. Conceiving of the “non-state” sector as a social and solidarity economy could also prove to be a softer landing for the hundreds of thousands of state workers that are expected to become (without a clear transition plan so far, it seems to me) cooperativistas and cuentapropistas.

Challenges, tensions and possibilities for a co-operative economy in Cuba

The release of the “Draft Guidelines” of the economic reforms in the fall of 2010, and the promising public consultations that were had between December 2010 and February 2011 with over 1 million Cubans in the process of developing the lineamientos, has, most certainly, committed Cuba to a massive reform of the economy such as it has never seen before. Cuba is, in a word, at a crossroads right now. There will definitely be room for a new kind of economy where “non-state enterprises” will be a reality sooner rather than later over the next three to five years. This will include a new Cuban entrepreneurial class, a larger class of cuentapropistas, a much larger class of salaried workers, and – potentially – a substantial social and solidarity economic sector populated by many co-operatives.

Whether a new private sector will dominate the new Cuban economy, or whether Cuba turns primarily to a new socialised economy rooted in co-operatives, remains to be seen. Certainly, Section 1 of the lineamientos (concerning Cuba's new “Economic Management Model”) leaves interpretive room for either, although the preamble to the lineamientos could arguably align more easily with a social economy made up of co-operatives:

“The economic system that shall prevail will continue to be based on the people's socialist ownership over the fundamental means of production, governed by the socialist principle of distribution: ‘from each according to his/her capacity to each according to his/her contribution.’”

Whichever way Cuba heads, and based on the open way these economic reforms are being discussed in Cuba right now (including in the daily Granma newspaper by the Communist Party), these reforms will potentially be broader and more transformative than the reforms that emerged during and immediately after the Special Period in the early 1990s.

Some economists that presented at the CEEC conference, for example, are pushing for the quick introduction of these reforms and talk liberally of increasing the space for cuentapropistas (the self-employed, which also includes entrepreneurs and employers) and allowing for a Cuban-owned and run private sector that will be able to hire employees other than family members. Indeed, this view is in line with sections 11 to 24 of the lineamientos.

Some of the economists I heard, inspired by the Chinese model of economic growth, talk as if some sort of a broader private sector is an unavoidable reality, necessary for the increased productivity and innovation needed in Cuba, they argue, in order to lift it out of its developing country status. The major indicators being used by these economists is economic growth, GDP, investment-to-profit ratios and so on. This can be straight-up neoclassical stuff and risks putting Cuba on the path of yet one more former socialist country that opens up its economy to unbridled markets. Moreover, the Cuban government is, as I write, also expanding its list of permissible private sector firms.


But, on the whole, opening up the Cuban economy more and more to straight up capital-labour relations and free markets is, I believe, the most perilous part of the suggested reforms and what might very well put Cuba's many socialist gains (i.e., free health care, excellent public education, low poverty rates, low crime rates, virtually no unemployment, subsidised housing, public transportation ...) at most risk of eventually evaporating into a market-driven system.

The degree of inter-firm competition that this new economy could involve is particularly unclear. And what of the characteristics of a new wage-based labour market that will be needed to supply employees to private firms, where the labour-power of a new class of “productive” workers would become one of Cuba's newest commodities and where out-and-out surplus-value extraction and capital accumulation would be the prime mover for more and more privatised firms and economic sectors? Surprisingly, there is very little mention of such basic socialist concepts and critiques from some of the Cuban economists I have heard and read in the past year.

Another set of issues posed by some Cuban economists and co-operative developers is how production inputs will be provisioned in a non-state sector. They realise that some sort of wholesale market will be needed, for instance, but are not clear about its make-up. This has been traditionally handled by state quotas in Cuba. How will the non-state sector adapt to supply and demand constraints? Will a production input and supplies market be driven and regulated by price-indicators for new non-state businesses to capitalise, or will state planning still be maintained there? Both of these scenarios have their downsides for a potential co-operative economy.

And what is the role of foreign businesses and suppliers? The issue of what type of consumer markets will emerge is equally vague still. Finally, if the Cuban government's plan is to transition former state employees to the new “non-state” economic sector and, in so doing, increase the country's non-state workers by as much as a fifth by 2015, how exactly will this transition happen and how will the Cuban state guarantee the lineamientos’ and Raul Castro's repeated assurances that “no one will be left unprotected” in the process?

All of these questions remain without clear answers to most Cubans I spoke with. But what is clear is that co-operatives will surely be allowed to emerge outside of the agricultural sector as service, consumer, housing and worker co-operatives. There is, moreover, a pending law of co-operatives that is being written right now, set to be released sometime this year, that should clarify to what degree the government is expecting co-operatives to take a leading role in the new non-state economic sector (Piñeiro Harnecker, 2012).

In sum, from the countless conversations I had while in Cuba with academics, government workers, co-operators and people on the street, many Cubans are very willing to contemplate and consider the role of a larger co-operative sector. There is no doubt that many Cubans are working hard to make this a reality in the coming months and years.

My sense is that many – perhaps the majority – of Cubans know that they have too much to lose to go down the neoliberal path, a distinct possibility given the trajectory of other "socialist" command economies, and the structural reforms that are unfolding. The co-operative path to economic sustainability would, I think, be a viable alternative development model for many key sectors of the Cuban economy. Such a development model would keep social wealth within the country and expand the capacities of Cuban workers in self-management. Such activism and participation among workers can also be a key spur to the nature of reforms in crucial areas where large state enterprises will remain, whether fully state owned or in joint enterprises. The co-operative road to reforms, most importantly, could help conserve the successes of Cuba's brand of socialism, notably its egalitarian education, cultural and health sectors, which remain quite unique across South America and the Caribbean. At the same time, such co-operative-based reforms could help Cuba move along a new path toward 21st century socialism.

[Marcelo Vieta recently completed his Ph.D. from York University's Program in Social and Political Thought with a dissertation looking at the innovations, challenges and political economic conjunctures of Argentina's empresas recuperadas por sus trabajadores (worker-recuperated enterprises). He is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Trento's European Research Institute on Cooperative and Social Enterprises (EURICSE) in Trento, Italy. Marcelo can be reached at: marcelo.vieta@euricse.eu or marcelo@vieta.ca.


Additional references on Cuba's new co-operatives:

 

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MY EXPERIENCE IN CUBA

Thursday, July 12, 2012

MY EXPERIENCE IN CUBA

http://weknowwhatsup.blogspot.com/2012/07/my-experience-in-cuba.html

David Johnson is a carpenter living in Champaign Illinois. He is the anchor of the Illinois Labor Hour. He recently visited Cuba and can be contacted at: dlj725@hughes.net

For anyone who lives outside the United States, a trip to Cuba is no different than a trip to any Caribbean country like Jamaica, Aruba, etc. However for U.S. Citizens and Permanent Resident Aliens living in the U.S., such a trip is not so easy.

Three years ago the Obama administration made it a little easier for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, but there is still a lengthy and more costly procedure that has to be undertaken. First one has to find a tour company that has an " umbrella " license from the U.S. Treasury Dept. that allows educational and cultural trips to Cuba. That costs anywhere from $ 300.00 and up per week for the " privilege " to travel to Cuba, in addition to the round-trip airfare.

Then once you are in Cuba, the U.S. government demands that U.S. citizens only stay in "approved" expensive hotels arranged by the tour group and participate in all programs of the tour group. The U.S. government calls this a " people to people exchange " , however as most things stated by the U.S. government, what they say and what they do or try to do is just the opposite. Such is the REAL intended effect of the above restrictions, to LIMIT contact between U.S. visitors and the Cuban people. And finally when a U.S. citizen returns from Cuba, they are not allowed to bring anything with them from Cuba, except "items of communication" like ; books, CD's, DVD's, paintings and posters.

THE CONFERENCE

My trip was under the educational auspices of a conference at the University of Havana organized by an organization called " Global Justice ", and the theme of the conference was ; " Socialist Renovation and Capitalist Crisis". The conference had participants and topic presenters from both Cuba and the U.S.. There were mostly academics in attendance, but in addition to myself a Carpenter by profession, there was a Baker from the San Francisco Bay area.

Much of the conference centered on problems in the U.S. and responses to these problems, like the Occupy Movement and in one case, the Baker from San Francisco making a presentation about the successful cooperative he has been a member of for almost 40 years, that started with 5 people and now has 53 members.

The presentations from the Cubans focused on the problems they have been facing historically with the U.S embargo, their successes and failures in the economy past and present, and ideas about the future restructuring of the economy to one degree or another. The topic of converting state owned enterprises into worker owned cooperatives was repeatedly discussed, with emphasis in the ; agricultural, construction, retail, and hotel / restaurant / bar and nightclub areas of the economy.
There was also a very contentious topic of allowing Cuban owned small private enterprises to begin operation and to allow them to hire employees. This was a very hotly debated issue, since this would begin the process of worker exploitation.

Currently the only private enterprises allowed in Cuba ( everything else is owned and operated by the State, even restaurants and bars ) are individuals / families who rent rooms to foreign visitors ( Casa Particulars ), individuals / families who have turned the front part of their homes into restaurants, people who use their vehicles for taxis, and street vendors.

As an interesting example, the taxi driver I had when I first arrived in Cuba from the airport to my hotel was previously an Engineer who worked for the Cuban government, but is now driving his own taxi because he earns 5-10 times as much as his previous Engineering job. An additional piece of info about the Casa Particulars ( rooms rented to foreign visitors in private homes ). The three different homes I stayed in all were clean. The hosts friendly. All of the rooms were private with ; a key, shower / toilet / sink, air-conditioned and / or had a fan. Two of the three also had a full sized refrigerator as well. I payed $ 20 to $ 25 ( U.S. ) for the rented rooms ( which included breakfast ), as compared to $ 80.00 ( U.S. ) for the barely tolerable tour group " approved " hotel.

MY IMPRESSIONS ON THE STREET

To begin with, when one arrives in Cuba, the first thing that is a noticeable difference is the 5-mile ride into Havana from the airport. One begins to see billboards within a few minutes on the road, but unlike the U.S. and other places I have been in less developed countries ( Mexico, Jamaica and Brazil), one does not see billboards of Coca-Cola, cellphone companies, and even condom advertisements. Instead one sees billboards with revolutionary slogans with pictures of Che Guevera, Camilo Cienfuegos and the Cuban Five imprisoned in Florida. This is when it hit me that I was actually in Cuba.

On the streets one sees about one in every four vehicles that are pre-1959 American cars, small Fiat looking Russian vehicles from the 1970's and 1980's, many motorcycles with side cars, an occasional newer Japanese or European vehicle, as well as many horse drawn carts and newer Chinese city buses. For a city of 2-million people, the traffic was steady but not congested.

The first evening I observed a lot of social activity occurring in the streets and along Havana's sea wall (El Malecon). Young people with unusual haircuts, piercings and tattoos like you would see in the U.S. or Europe. A diverse and intermingled racial mixture of people socializing together. Individuals, couples and families of all ages walking around and hanging-out at the seawall, drinking openly in public and various individuals and small groups of people singing and playing musical instruments. My first thoughts were that this did not seem like an oppressive society.

In the U.S., the police would not tolerate such large informal social gatherings in public on the streets drinking alcohol, and would be sending in riot squads to break-up any such gatherings that did not have official approval, restrictions and permits. I saw Cuban police mainly in the tourist areas and unlike Mexico, Jamaica and Brazil, nowhere did I see the police patrolling with shotguns and automatic weapons, with arrogant attitudes and glaring at the people on the streets, looking and acting like they were hoping for a confrontation with someone.

I have even seen this occasionally in the U.S., but not in Cuba. I felt perfectly safe walking around at night. The one danger in walking at night in Havana however is the occasional uncovered sewer manhole or busted chunks of concrete on the sidewalks in certain areas.

In subsequent evenings during my 7-day stay in Cuba, I found to my surprise that the Cubans I spoke to were :

1) Very well informed about what was happening in general in the U.S.., politically, economically, etc..

2) Not at all timid about stating their opinions about what they liked and disliked about the Cuban government and society. Several people stated that Fidel Castro, despite his outstanding leadership in the Cuban revolution, should have stepped aside years ago, and that younger people in general should be in leadership positions at the national level. Also that corruption is pervasive. In particular, if one needs something like a service they are entitled to under Cuban law from a low level government official, that bribery is often needed to obtain what they need in a timely matter.

3) Very proud of their health care and educational system, and were shocked to hear from me examples of how much both health care and university education cost in real terms compared to what myself and the average U.S. worker earned.

4) Stated repeatedly the evils of the U.S. embargo and did not blame the American people, but instead the U.S. government and those who control it.

5) Were cautiously optimistic about the future in terms of ;

a) The U.S. embargo ending and a subsequent influx of U.S. tourists and products.

b) The Cuban government transferring state run enterprises into worker owned cooperatives.

c) Being able to travel abroad easier.

d) U.S. companies moving into Cuba providing products and jobs but with restrictions upon them in terms of their ability to control the economy and influence the government.

e) Being able to protect their health care and educational system from adverse changes.

What also surprised me was the abundance of people who owned chickens in Havana and the number of rooftop vegetable gardens.

With the exception of my first night in which I was " persuaded " by the tour group to stay in an overpriced hotel, I stayed in Casa Particulars ( Cubans who rent rooms to foreign visitors ) and because of this I had another opportunity to get the opinions of my hosts as well as sample some delicious home prepared Cuban food. What was really amazing was how tasteful simple items like eggs, milk and butter were and how thick and flavorful various fruit juices were compared to the U.S..
It was obvious that Monsanto, ADM, Cargill, and other agri-businesses with their chemical and preservative laced products and their livestock factory production of egg, meat, and dairy products was not present in Cuba.

The downside of Havana however was the terrible condition of most of their buildings, literally falling apart, even though inside people's apartments everything was clean and well maintained.
The building elevators were very scary and as I stated previously, the sidewalks were in many places torn-up.

The streets were in decent condition and many of the two and three hundred year old buildings in the old part of Havana have been beautifully restored. But when one walks a few blocks away from the tourist areas with it's magnitude of hustlers and aggressive prostitutes, one finds entire blocks of buildings in some areas that looked as if the U.S. military had bombed the area five years previously.

IN THE COUNTRYSIDE

The fourth day I was in Cuba I traveled to a town 3-hours west of Havana called Vinales, which has about 20,000 inhabitants and is located in an agricultural area that grows ; tobacco, coffee, and a variety of fruits, vegetables and livestock. The primary attraction of the area of Vinales is the haystack shaped mountains ( Mozotes ) full of caves and protected forests that has been a UNESCO nature site since the mid-1970's. Hence there is a fair amount of tourism every year.

The drive to Vinales was an interesting glimpse of the Cuban country-side. The interstate highway that we took three-fourths of the journey was not in as good of condition as interstate roads in the U.S., but considerably better than similar roads I have encountered in the past in Jamaica and Mexico ( with the exception of the expensive Mexican toll roads ). Along the interstate I saw people on bicycles and horse drawn wagons traveling on the shoulder of the highway, as well as groups of people standing under various overpass bridges, waiting for transport trucks to stop and in exchange for a few pesos give them a ride to town exits along the way.

During the 120 mile or so ride on the interstate I saw an occasional agricultural field, but the vast majority of the flat-lands ( with mountains in the distance ) were unused grasslands and scattered shrub trees. At the previous days conference in Havana, I had learned that Cuba is only currently using about 20 % of it's potential of land that could be used for agricultural production. One of the future goals of the Cuban government is to try to significantly increase the development of unused land into agricultural cooperatives. An important priority in a country that imports 70 % of it's food supply.

Once we left the interstate and traveled the last 15-miles or so on two lane roads to the town of Vinales, I saw a lot of small farms with many fruit trees and various small to medium sized parcels of land growing a variety of crops, in addition to a fair amount of pigs, chickens, goats, and an occasional milk cow and/or cattle.

All of the houses I saw were made of either log cabin type solid wood or concrete block and stucco with a variety of different roofs of clay tile, concrete, metal, or in some cases thatched vegetation.
No where in Cuba, either in the outskirts of Havana or the country-side did I see the familiar metal and / or cardboard shacks that I saw a lot of in Mexico, Jamaica, and parts of Brazil.
Nor did I see large amounts of trash, garbage dumps, or rivers and streams used as open sewers as exists in the above countries.

On the two lane side road to Vinales, I saw both arriving and during my departure several days later, transport and pick-up trucks with doctors riding in the back, wearing white robes and hiking boots and carrying black doctor's bag of medical supplies, making their weekly rounds to small villages.
In the town of Vinales, other than the main road into town where about 5-6 blocks of businesses were located, all of the streets were rough dirt and gravel with a considerable number of pot-holes, with many chickens and pigs wandering around.

In contrast, people's homes were in some cases very well maintained inside and on the exterior, to the point of looking " middle class ". In general it appeared that the people in this small city had a higher standard of living than most people in Havana.

CONCLUSION

Cuba is a very interesting country that is currently in a period of transition. The next five years or so should be interesting as to how and to what extent Cuba changes for either the worse or the better. In many ways it is like things have been frozen in time since the 1950's in the case of many functioning automobiles or more accurately the 1970's in the case of it's " newer " buildings, with an unbelievable amount of unspoiled and untouched nature as well as an abundance of older buildings that are still standing in various degrees of restoration or disrepair, some dating from the year 1650. But also an incredible number from the 1890's and the 1920's that have an incredible amount of ornate architectural detail.

It is my opinion that none of this preserved history and nature would exist if the Cuban revolution had not been successful. Capitalism would have destroyed most of it years ago and in it's place new sterile high-rise office buildings, condos and shopping malls would have been constructed.

In terms of human beings, one of the things I noticed was how good of teeth everyone had. How I saw no people sleeping in the streets, begging, nor extremely thin or extremely overweight people, or that "beaten down" look of despair, desperation and defeat. Which is more than I can say about other places I have been in Latin America / Caribbean ( Jamaica, Mexico, Brazil ) or even in certain areas of the U.S..

Cuba has many problems, in particular the general condition of housing and infrastructure in Havana. But Cuba has a much higher standard of living than any of the neighboring countries in the Caribbean / Latin America, in particular Haiti and Honduras.

It's main economic source of revenue is ; tourism, tobacco, and sugar, although it has made some significant economic advances in recent years in alternative energy such as wind, solar and hydro-electricity, as well as the beginnings of a solar panel manufacturing industry for both domestic use and export. The overall economy has grown in the last 2-3 years, including a 24 % increase in tourism. Ironically though the tourism infrastructure has been barely able to keep pace with the increase. I was told at the conference that if the U.S. embargo against Cuba would end next month, there would be a mass influx of U.S. tourists and that Cuba would not be able to handle the increase in the number of visitors.

Although I wondered when I was in Cuba, if Cuba really needed the U.S. for anything considering it's current economic relationships with Europe, Latin America, China and Japan ?

Ending the U.S. embargo I was told would help Cuba in many ways such as cheaper food prices and some medicines with U.S. patents, as well as a larger variety of products that would be available. As long as there were no political and economic " strings attached ". Of course if U.S. corporations would be allowed in to Cuba with no restrictions on their operations and behaviour, how long would it be before the IMF and World Bank would begin to move-in ? If that would be the case it would only be a matter of time before they would try to privatize everything and the Cuban people would lose their free health-care and free educational system.

My wife's cousin who lives in Poland experienced first hand what a total transformation from a State run economy to a capitalist economy is like. Almost overnight when this happened in Poland in the early 1990's, half of the country lost their jobs, rents doubled and food prices tripled. This has since been termed " Shock Doctrine ", and several of the Cuban Presenters at the conference used the term and stated emphatically that current Cuban government officials have stated that they will under no circumstances allow this to happen. I hope this is the case and not as in the transformation of Russia where shock doctrine also occurred with the cooperation of Communist Party government officials who became very rich in the process via bribes and kickbacks.

In general not only is Cuba fascinating and it's people engaging and friendly, but it has something very special about it which is difficult to describe.
Although I was only in Cuba for 7-days, and I would need to live and work there for at least a year to speak with any real confidence about what life there is truly like, I nevertheless saw that what I had been told about Cuba all my life via the U.S. government and the corporate media was an absolute and total LIE !

I hope that the Cuban people are able to keep the best of what they have and change for the better the inadequacies. I am both worried and hopeful as probably many Cubans themselves are in terms of what the future will be.

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