Are We Seeing Real Change in Cuba?

23/10/2012 10:30 BST | Updated 22/12/2012 10:12 GMT

You may think it bold and brave of Raul Castro, brother of Fidel and president of Cuba, to tear down his country's longstanding exit visa requirement. Indeed on first reading it certainly looks this way, but at best it is a small token of what we should expect after 'reforms' - at worst it is a cynical ploy to try and appease human rights monitors.

To be sure, Cuba is in trouble. Mirroring many other countries, shortfalls in state budgetary coffers has necessitated a series of measures to bring money in so as to ensure the benefits normal Cuban citizens do have are safeguarded.

Unfortunately Cuba has already had its 'New Economic Policy', to remember back to the Soviet Union. Back in 1921, while the state owned all banks and large industries, the USSR allowed for small business to be freed up in the hope a better economy would result.

Similarly in Cuba, the promotion of small enterprise has been one of the changes key to the Castro brother takeover. However where in Russia it created little more than a short spell of packed theatres, luxurious furs and diamonds, in Cuba it has produced not much at all.

The next stage, therefore, was to take another look at how permitting travel to more Cubans would benefit the economy - even though this lack of freedom has always been dictated by the Cuban leadership as a small price to pay for the revolution.

Jose Barreiro, the deputy minister of labor and social security of Cuba, recently admitted the reason why this was on the cards: "[as a] measure adopted while thinking of people coming from the overly staffed government sector as well as others who are not occupationally engaged".

So the government, after its layoff plan, is now worried that the private sector, which has always been constrained, cannot contain those who are now finding themselves workless.

The lifting of exit visa requirements has two connected, supposed benefits; namely that it will offer workless Cubans a chance to seek employment in other countries (you can be out of Cuba for 24, not 11 months now, before you lose citizenship and healthcare benefits), while also bringing back entrepreneurial expertise on return.

But this is a big ask of citizens to a country who have never enjoyed easy access out, either to work, travel (not financially viable for many Cubans) or see family abroad. On this, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a former government economist turned dissident, recently said: "Those who do come back, I don't think they'll bring much with them."

That this move excludes professionals such as doctors tells us that the Cuban leadership is still worried that many will be lured by higher incomes and standards of living in countries abroad, for this too has an economic disadvantage. For example 40,000 Cuban doctors and other professionals are stationed in Venezuela in exchange for around 115,000 barrels of oil a day.

On the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Raul Castro is doing things to Cuba that many citizens once thought unimaginable. The reality though is that Cuba is struggling, as it always has done, and the cure will only bring its own problems to the Cuban leader's rule.

Easier travel for Cubans should be music to the ears to those of us who desire to see change in the country, but unless the government becomes more realistic about what it should do to help its citizens - many of whom are too young to live for the romantic ideal of the revolution alone - coordinated change that brings real benefits, and not just smoke signs of change, remain forthcoming.