First published in Portuguese in Folha de Sao Paulo.
The post-Castro era in Cuba has arrived. But its main architect is Raul Castro. His reform agenda does not have the formulaic recitations of a political science textbook or the guidelines of an IMF structural adjustment program. No multiparty elections. No Starbucks, Walmart, or Burger King. Not much independent media. But little by little Cuba is undergoing a significant transformation in the basic expectations Cuban citizens have of the state, and vice versa. Lula's visit this week may focus on Venezuela, but all around him Cuba is becoming a freer, more open, and yes, more democratic society.
Earlier this month, a new law took effect that eliminates restrictions on travel for almost everyone: Cubans no longer need pay exorbitant fees or await the "tarjeta blanca"—state permission—to travel. Now, they need only a visa, like the rest of the world. And if they want to live and work abroad, Cubans will no longer lose their property or residence status: a big step forward for freedom and human rights, and a potential economic boon as well.
Business and profit are no longer dirty words. Senior officials project that with new laws and regulations empowering small businesses, within five years fully 50 percent of the economy will be in private, non-state hands. Under the new rules, individuals and cooperatives can now hire employees, obtain bank financing, procure inputs from wholesale markets, and turn a profit. There are myriad problems for sure: but these are increasingly of a practical, not ideological nature, more about the need to build capacity and experience, whereas before the private sector was viewed as a necessary evil. Now this new space has legitimacy and legality.
A progressive tax system is also taking shape. This is not a mere technical adjustment. With the new decentralization, state and municipal government will raise and spend their budgets from tax revenue collected at the base, with the federal government paying a much reduced slate of costs—mainly education, health and defense. Cubans are used to getting everything for free. The notion that they will work, pay taxes, and receive health, education and a pension but not much more, represents a radical political shift.
Next month Raul Castro begins his second and very likely final five-year term as president of the Cuban republic. The slate of candidates represents a big demographic and political step forward. Some 67 percent of the candidates for 612 seats are completely new picks, and of these, more than 70 percent were born after 1959. Women comprise 49 percent of the candidates and Afro descendants 37 percent. Cuban voters will be asked to check yea or nay from this new list, so it's not a direct competition. But if you want to understand where the successors to the post post-Castro era may come from, I'd look at this new group.