Tag Archives: alternatives to development

CoVid-19 in Cuba: Reflections on Inequalities, Scarcity, and Alternatives

By Nadia Nava Contreras

Picture: Graffiti in Centro Habana, January 2020 by Nadia Nava Contreras

Images of Cuban medical brigades landing in Italy and the British cruise ship disembarking on the island after being refused entry to other Caribbean ports made the headlines on global public discussions on Cuba’s responses to the CoVid19 crisis. The government’s assertion on its success to combat the virus accompanies the equation, getting appraisal in academic circles. Simultaneously, the Revolution opponents use scarcity and energetic dependency to point out the unfeasibility of the Cuban model: the U.S. embargo is not the one to blame; it is “The Castros,” it is communism.

Trapped in between polarizing views, Cuban people have slowly opened globally visible spaces of discussion, thanks to the recent expansion of internet use (2014). Cuba’s slow-paced demotic turn —the increasing visibility of the ordinary person in the media— provides a window to look at how Cubans have experienced the CoVid-19 crisis. I want to call attention to two matters dominating discussions on internet platforms such as YouTube and Twitter: the inequalities propelled by the dual-currency monetary system and scarcity. For the last few years, Cubans have feared the advent of a second “special period,” the deep economic crisis that followed the socialist bloc’s collapse. The global pandemic has created the perfect storm for a similar scenario.

The dual-currency system originated in 1994 when the National Bank of Cuba introduced the Convertible Peso (CUC) to replace transactions in U.S. dollars. The transition was completed in 2004. From the start, it became evident that Cubans with access to CUC had a clear advantage over those without.  Most people get salaries in CUP (Cuban Peso), amounting to around 25 CUC in 2020.1 A minority with a job in the service sector (waiters, taxi drivers, tourist guides, etc.) or with an entrepreneurial license can access CUC more easily. Remittances also guarantee the constant flow of “better” money.

In 2019, the Cuban government announced the opening of stores operating exclusively in MLC (“Moneda Libre Convertible” or freely convertible currency). Through an electronic card charged with U.S. Dollars, Euros, Mexican Pesos, Swiss Francs, or other coins, citizens could purchase electronic appliances, homeware, and even cars. Officials defended the decision as the best way to capture foreign currency necessary for imports and other financial operations. The process was documented by journalists, but also by Vloggers and YouTubers like Frank Camallerys and Pedrito el Paketero. The latter interviewed people on the streets, getting replies commonly present in other social media forums: “that is for people who have family in the Yuma (U.S.),” “I don’t get paid in foreign currency.”

In January 2020, before CoVid-19 made it to the Cuban news, the island’s economic prospects were already pessimistic. For Carmelo Mesa-Lago, this is the result of 1)a substantial cut of economic trade and aid from Venezuela, 2) the hardening of U.S. sanctions by the Trump administration, 3)the predominance of central planning in the economy. For Cubans’ everyday lives, the economic crisis translates into a rise in prices and scarcity of essential products. Even during the pandemic’s peak on the island, goods like soap were nowhere to be found.

During a fieldwork visit to Havana last January, queues outside supermarkets were a common sight. Yet, some habaneros I talked to remained somehow hopeful: the slow but steady growth of private businesses such as cafeterias, restaurants, bars, was a good source of income to many, either through entrepreneurship or employment (the emergence of the private sector in Cuba is also recent). The CoVid-19 crisis changed everything dramatically because most of those establishments depend on tourism. Initially, the government tried to promote Cuba as a CoVid-safe destination, taking advantage of the island’s medical sector’s solid reputation. The proposal awoke strong animosities on social media, and in the end, Cuba closed its borders. Tourism revenue plummeted. Reopening businesses during the late Summer did not improve the situation. Most Cubans cannot afford services initially designed for internationals. A shutdown of remittances is also likely. The government announced U.S.’s latest sanctions would force Western Union offices’ closure on the island, affecting those who receive money from abroad enormously.

However, what puzzles many Cubans to the point of anger is their government’s doing: when CoVid restrictions eased and supermarkets reopened, many were converted to MLC stores. Inaugurated in 2017, those supermarkets sold mainly imported goods at CUC prices, something already inaccessible for most. The new alternative limits, still more, access those same imports. Cubans have also denounced the lack of goods in CUP/CUC stores, contrasting with a better offer in MLC ones. If the dual-currency system was already the inegalitarian paradox of the Cuban model, MLC stores have added a brand new layer.

Scarcity may not be new for Cubans, and neither is it weak purchase power. A Cuban proverb states, “Cubans do not live from a salary; Cubans live from el invento.” An umbrella term for survival alternatives that rank from informal/black/grey market economies to remittances, upcycling, and favors, el invento has limits. Over the last years, the country has tried to steer apart from its historical trajectory as a sugar/tobacco economy to diversify crops. Mesa-Lago has suggested that for Cuba to survive these convulse times, the Vietnamese model could work: food self-sufficiency. Finding alternative sources of energy is also a “must.” Agricultural produce often spoils in the fields due to lack of transportation means. The cruel face of tourism also manifests in scarcity: lemons were easier to find in agromarkets once they did not end up in tourists’ mojitos.

The internet overture has enabled the visibility of Cubans that want to find sustainable and alternative solutions for their country’s development. One remarkable example is El Enjambre,” an independent Podcast discussing current issues created in 2019.  Undoubtedly, those voices have always existed, but they did not resonate so loudly. Many proposals often go beyond the socialist/capitalist dichotomies and require extensive social participation. Outsiders, need also to listen to those voices, to escape from the same dichotomies and accept that Cubans citizens are the ones with solutions to their problems.

1 25 CUC equals 22 euros as of November 2, 2020.

Nadia Nava Contreras, M.A. is a project researcher at the John Morton Center for North American Studies, University of Turku. She is part of the CUBAFLUX project, financed by the Kone Foundation, where she investigates the impact of Cuba’s Digital Revolution in Havana’s urban configuration.  

Development Days 2019, Helsinki 27.2.-1.3. Repositioning global development: Decolonial thinking and bringing forth systemic alternatives

In this post, we have a report from ESDLA member Laura Kumpuniemi, about a summary of some discussions held in the most recent Development Days Conference in Helsinki, past 27.2-1.3. 2019.  

Laura is a Ph.D. researcher in the doctoral programme of Social and Cultural Encounters at the University of Eastern Finland. Her research is about solidarity economy in Bolivia.

 

The Development Days conference is an annual event organised in Helsinki by the Finnish Society for Development Research. This year’s conference focused on development strategies suggested as alternatives to globalisation and the dominant development model that have been linked with pressing global inequalities, the ecological crisis, and the rise of extremism and populism.

In this summary, I will present some conference discussions that can be of interest to people dealing with development issues. These presented ideas were brought up by two of the key speakers of this year’s conference. Ashish Kothari is an environmentalist from India and is working on development, environment interface, biodiversity policy, and alternatives. Another keynote speaker was Rosalba Icaza Garza from the Erasmus University Rotterdam and she is interested in decolonial thinking and the ‘international’, academia’s role in the promotion of autonomy, learning as liberation/liberation of learning and plural feminisms for plural liberations.

The bulldozer of development and its bandages

According to Kothari, development has not been the best solution to the challenges it has tried to confront. He refers to development as a bulldozer that rather destroys what was there instead of building on things that already exist. The solutions offered through development, like the Sustainable Development Goals or the green economy, are just bandages and more radical (means to go to the roots) changes would be needed. The focus needs to be more on what makes us happy and what supports wellbeing instead of discussing what Kothari refers to as the “oxymoron of sustainable development”.

Icaza Garza focused on decolonial thinking in her speech. She painted a picture of development as an articulation of modernity’s movement of representation and appropriation and the tendency of dividing the world into opposite sides where the poor and the earth are seen as the other. According to Icaza Garza, development’s baseline has been the assumptions of anthropocentrism and the economy’s basis in growth through which nature has been and still is treated as an object and a resource.

Also, Icaza Garza pointed out that decolonisation will not take place through altering development. There has been a discussion about different modifications that try to tweak the system and create things like socially responsible capitalism, sustainable capitalism or capitalism with a human face. In a working group about alternatives to development, a Ph.D. researcher and activist Marta Musić pointed out that these modified versions of capitalism are not real alternatives. A thorough decolonialisation needs to deal with the ethnocentric and anthropocentric basis of development thinking. Decolonial approach to development is about unlearning modern colonial subjectivities, questioning dominance and the processes of negation of alterities. Icaza Garza suggests replacing the ways of working and learning resulting from modernity with practices of conviviality – learning together without teachers, professors, and disciplines. (More on conviviality, see The Convivialist Manifesto 2014.)

Marta Musić showed an example of different versions of capitalism suggested as fake alternatives. Photo: Laura Kumpuniemi.

Alternatives to development

Kothari highlighted the many alternatives that are trying and creating more just and sustainable futures and confronting the structural roots of unsustainability and equity and different forms of oppression (capitalism, patriarchy, the concentration of power, racism, among others). Essentially, these are alternatives to development and, to a certain extent, to capitalism. As such, these alternatives are forms of resistance based on different worldviews and different ways of being mostly taking the form of grassroots movements that aim for structural change through practising contextually adequate measures for problems people and the environment are facing.

One of the examples, eco-swaraj, is an approach rooted in India and is based on radical ecological democracy. The aim of eco-swaraj is to achieve human well-being through empowering citizens and communities to participate in decision-making, ensuring socio-economic equity and justice and respecting the limits of the earth. In eco-swaraj, the community serves as the basic unit for organisation instead of the state or private corporations and responsibility for others is considered an essential element of community.

Kothari showed how the systemic alternatives (need to) consider five interlinked spheres of transformation: radical democracy, economic democracy, social justice and well-being, cultural knowledge diversity, and ecological resilience and wisdom including the rights of nature. One dimension in these alternatives is the radicalisation of people’s economic thinking to cover more than just the profit and competition as a basis for the economy. The alternatives also have common characteristics in the values they share from diversity, collectivity, and dignity to pursuit of happiness, and from autonomy, solidarity, enoughness, and ecoregionalism to non-violence.

Kothari also presented an interesting initiative, the global tapestries of alternatives, that is meant to gather together these different alternatives to discuss and act together, thus, creating a greater political mass. This is what is needed to bring about real change instead of fighting different fights in isolation from the other fronts.

Ashish Kothari speaking about sustainable alternatives at the Think Corner, Helsinki. Photo: Laura Kumpuniemi.

Ending with self-care

At the closing ceremony of the conference, we heard recaps from many of the working groups that had taken place during the two days. One of the working groups had taken practical steps in the lines of Icaza Garza’s ideas to decolonise academia. The group had started their session with a meditation to encourage self-care and bringing the focus into the session at hand by trying to get out of the stress cycle that is present in many people’s lives constantly. It was interesting to hear that the academic world can let in some glimpses of other, less rigid ideas and approaches and embrace the idea of caring for the self. This is forgotten all too often and it would be welcome to also give more attention to other, alternative dimensions of the academic minds than just the intellectual. This could contribute to decolonising the academic practice through a healthier working environment in the pressure of competition and focus on achievement.

 

 

Erratum 1: [14.5.2019]

Reference on picture 1 has changed by request of the blog’s author:

Marta Musić showed an example of different versions of capitalism suggested as fake alternatives. Photo: Laura Kumpuniemi.

In the original text, the reference on picture 1 was:

Rosalba Icaza Garza showed an example of different versions of capitalism suggested as fake alternatives. Photo: Laura Kumpuniemi.

Erratum 2: [14.5.2019]

This part was changed by request of the blog’s author:

There has been a discussion about different modifications that try to tweak the system and create things like socially responsible capitalism, sustainable capitalism or capitalism with a human face. In a working group about alternatives to development, a Ph.D. researcher and activist Marta Musić pointed out that these modified versions of capitalism are not real alternatives.

In the original text, the reference to Marta Musić was missing:

There has been a discussion about different modifications that try to tweak the system and create things like socially responsible capitalism, sustainable capitalism or capitalism with a human face. These are not real alternatives, however. A thorough decolonialisation needs to deal with the ethnocentric and anthropocentric basis of development thinking.