As cars rumble along the roads, it is evident that there is a distinctly archaic style to Cuban vehicles. The reason for this is not one of fashion or nostalgia, but rather the result of a decades-old law restricting the import of any cars after the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
According to the law, only vehicles present in Cuba before the Revolution could be bought and sold. As a nation that later adopted communism as its guiding philosophy, and thus becoming a prominent actor in the Cold War, it is understandable why most of the cars that fill the Cuban streets today are either Soviet-built or American. This, however, is a changing phenomenon as the law was overturned last year, allowing for the import of foreign cars under certain conditions, just a part of the sweeping reforms that are evident in a modernizing Cuba.
Cuba is once again gaining international attention this week following the arrival on Monday of Pope Benedict XVI, as part of his Latin American tour. The visit is the first papal visit to the island in 14 years, and symbolizes the continued openness and integration of Cuba with the outside world, as well as the importance of religion to its people despite decades of state-supported atheism under Fidel Castro’s Communist Party.
While the party is alive and well under Castro’s brother and successor, Raul, it is evident that the new leader has a more amenable attitude toward economic integration and tolerance of diversity, including religious traditions. More than half of Cuba’s 11 million people claim Roman Catholicism as their religious affiliation, a fact that has convinced Raul Castro of the need to embrace the religious institution in order to garner public support. Not only this, but Castro has even reached out to the church in seeking to address major issues such as the rights and treatment of political prisoners and dissidents. The Catholic Church, as a powerful and far-reaching international body, also serves as an important ally to Castro in reaching the outside world.
The recent changes reinforce the long-held notion by outsiders that communism has little practicality in the modern age. As one of only five self-declared communist countries left today, and the only one in the Western hemisphere, Cuba is a place where the people have grown increasingly disillusioned with the political landscape, the failure to fulfill the promises espoused by communist philosophy and the detachment from an ever-growing and developing world. Castro’s reforms are largely in response to this disposition, and since 2008 he has embarked on a reform agenda that has included slashing government jobs and reducing subsidies.
If change was in the cards with Castro’s ascension, it was thrust onto the agenda by sheer necessity following the 2008 global financial crisis. Despite being heavily detached from the global system, Cuba still lost hugely and found itself crippled by debts owed to other countries. Since then economic reforms have included greater support for private enterprise and reduced restrictions on private ownership such as houses and cars. The result has been modest economic growth, expected to peak at around 2.5 percent this year (real GDP growth).
There are, of course, barriers yet to overcome. Castro remains adamant that communism is set to remain the prevailing political system in Cuba for the foreseeable future which is not likely to help relations with others, particularly the United States. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba, and there are no apparent signs of its imminent removal.
Furthermore, the transition from economic centralization to liberalization is not straightforward and Cubans may see hard times before the good arrives. Of particular note are the roughly half-a-million government workers set to be fired in the coming years, all of whom will ultimately need new jobs in the private sector. Innovation and enterprise are only nascent concepts to most Cubans, and with limited access to outside education or technological and knowledge transfers to Cuba, the path to change and growth may be a slow one.
Despite these concerns, hopes are high among many Cubans and outsiders alike that the pope’s visit will shed light on Cuba’s continued reform and that working alongside such critical institutions as the Catholic Church will further engender favorable diplomatic relations with the outside world.