In a pilot project, Cuba's government began leasing cars to some Havana taxi drivers, and found that productivity increased by 55 times, and that the annual state income per cab rose from the equivalent of $582 to $18,360, the Cuban press reported this week.
Experts warn, however, that constructing a private sector from scratch will not be easy, especially as Castro has no intention of establishing capitalism to make it easier. "Don't expect Cuba's streets to turn into Broadway or some kind of Asian communism overnight; we are just beginning and based on Cuban reality," a local economist said.
"Communism does not work any longer, not even in Cuba," said Fidèl Castro. In an interview to The Atlantic, the man who guided the Cuban Revolution in 1959, acknowledged that the Cuban economic model had failed. "It's not even working for us" Castro told journalist Jeffrey Goldberg.
This was too much for the Cuban regime, now guided by Fidel's brother Raùl; so, a few days later, Fidèl Castro released a statement saying that he had been misunderstood and that what he really meant was exactly the opposite.
It is unlikely that he had been misunderstood: the Cuban government is planning to bring changes into the local economy that are so drastic that many observers are wondering whether these reforms are, in fact, the beginning of the end of communism in the Caribbean island.
Cuba is planning to move hundreds of thousands of workers off state payrolls and trying to boost private enterprise. Cuba's minister of finances, Marino Murillo, said last month that the government was studying "ways and means for updating the Cuban economic model presently run by the economic categories of socialism and not by the market."
A jobs plan, subsequently announced, constitutes the most significant step so far in a series of reforms initiated by President Raul Castro, and the biggest shift toward private enterprise since the Revolution. It calls for cutting 500,000 state jobs, while at the same time issuing 250,000 licenses for self-employment and creating 200,000 non-state jobs largely by converting state businesses into employee-run cooperatives.
More than 85 % of the Cuban labor force, or over 5 million people, worked for the state at the close of 2009, according to government figures. The changes should help the finances of the government, as it collects more taxes and gets new revenues from the self-employed.
In his interview to The Atlantic, Castro also made some surprisingly harsh remarks on Iranian President Ahmadinejad and his attitude towards Israel. Castro, even though he is a longtime critic of Israeli government policy, said Jews had been slandered and slaughtered for centuries, whereas Muslims had never been blamed for anything. The 83-year-old comandante criticized Ahmadinejad for denying the Holocaust and urged Tehran to acknowledge the "unique" history of anti-Semitism and understand why Israelis feared for their existence. Iran, he said, should understand the Jews were expelled from their land and mistreated all over the world as the ones who killed God. "The Jews have lived an existence that is much harder than ours. There is nothing that compares to the Holocaust."
These comments are a blow in the face of Iran's president and could prove hard to digest for those South American leaders that have openly shown sympathies for the Iranian dictator such as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Bolivia's Evo Morales or even Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who recently flew to Teheran to forge new ties with Ahmadinejad.
Hugo Chávez, who has totally embraced Iran's foreign policy and who calls Castro and Ahmadinejad respectively "padre y hermano" (father and brother), quickly announced, without making reference to Castro's statements, that he would soon meet the Jewish community of Venezuela. "They tried to set up a small campaign suggesting that I am against Jews… As a matter of fact I respect and love the Jewish people" said Chavez.
We have, of course, heard that song before. Jew-haters vow that they are not anti-Semitic but only anti-Zionist. But Chávez's opportunistic openings will not fool Venezuela's Jews, who are already massively fleeing the country. Ten years ago the members of the Jewish community in Venezuela were 18.000; now down by half.
The latest report published by the Stephen Roth Institute on Anti-Semitism in Venezuela -- for 2008-2009 -- mentions that most anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist expressions come from circles close to the presidency, and details the comments made by officials and supporters of the president in the state-owned media.
One hopes that Castro's remarks will have a positive effect on the virulent expressions so far utilized by the socialist regimes of South America against Israel and the Jews in general. His effort, however, is not going to be simple: these regimes have always a need for a scapegoat to justify their own failures. In this, America and Israel represent the perfect enemy. An interview with an 84 year old ailing ex-leader will not change things; but it might be a signal that something is irreversibly changing.