A future with ham and cheese?

When Fidel remarked last summer on how the country’s economic system “doesn’t even work for us anymore,” he set the tone for the sixth Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), which concluded this past Tuesday. The roughly 890,000 members of the party convened in Havana to discuss and vote on changes in the nation’s economic system. Remarks made at the Congress reminded me of my struggle to understand Cuba’s quasi-Marxist economic system, which began when I was a student at the University of Havana in 2004.

During that semester, most of my interest in the economy revolved around the challenge of feeding myself each day. On one corner near the University’s main campus, there were two small business operations run out of store windows: one sold fresh juices and peanut butter bars, and the other sold ham sandwiches. The sandwiches consisted of two slices of ham on a potato bread bun. No toppings, no condiment. These bocaditos made you feel like you were eating a bad joke about the so-called “Cuban sandwich” that appears on so many restaurant menus in the US. But they were better than peanut butter bars alone.

One afternoon, a friend and I found ourselves in Old Havana on the prowl for a quick lunch. We located a vendor similar to the one near school, and each bought a sandwich. But in these sandwiches, we found two slices of classic (indescribably bland) Cuban cheese.

“You know, ” my friend said to the vendor, “we usually buy our sandwiches from a guy in Vedado. But his sandwiches have ham,” she told him. “What if you had ham and cheese on your sandwiches–then you might sell a lot more. You two could collaborate! That way you wouldn’t have to buy more food.”

“But it’s a different zone,” he said again. “In this zone, we have cheese for sandwiches. There where your friend is in Vedado, they have ham. This is how it works in this city. If I had ham and cheese, it would upset the equilibrium. It would unfair for the other vendors.”

Before, we had supposed that the only problem at hand was scarcity of resources. But it was more than that–it was an economic logic that we had never seen in practice, and a social code (“it would be unfair to the other vendors”) that we’d read about as a theory, but evidently had never imagined in real terms.

I thought of this exchange when I read in Escambray, a newspaper in the Sancti Spiritus province, that a proposal had been raised at the PCC conference to change how construction is compensated. The newspaper’s website reported that “[t]he delegates…agreed that to achieve greater efficiency in the construction sector, it would be appropriate to pay according to the results and quality of the work…” I’m sure nothing could sound more natural to most readers, but as the sandwich story illustrates, the idea of linking the quality to price, or compensation, is novel in many labor contexts in Cuba.

Bold ideas have come to the fore at this Congress. On Monday, PCC members voted unanimously to impose term limits (two, of five years each) on high-ranking elected government officials–a proposal introduced by Raul himself. They also voted to make it legal again for Cubans to own, buy, and sell homes. It’s hard to know what this will mean in real terms, but if it is what it sounds like, it will mean real change. More on this very soon.

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