WEEK IN REVIEW 10 November 2011

by by Barry Elkinton & Alex Ronan

Cuba Cribs

Lockeans, get out your party horns. Cuba, one of the world’s last communist holdouts, announced on November 3 that private property rights are returning to the island. Under a new, widely anticipated law, Cubans will be able to buy and sell homes for the first time since the end of the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Though this privilege will only be extended to permanent residents of the island—global capitalist marauders need not apply—the law will allow Cubans to own up to two houses; one in the city, and another in a government designated “vacation zone.” After all, as Tim Padgett of Time sardonically observes, some weekends “you just need to get away from your neighborhood’s Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.”

The new rule, effective November 10, is the latest in a string of reforms by President Raul Castro aimed at encouraging limited free-market activity on the Caribbean’s largest island. Since he took over from his brother Fidel in 2008, Castro has granted Cubans new privileges, such as the right to have cell phones, operate private businesses, and sell used cars.

This past summer, the Cuban government even issued preliminary approval for the construction of sixteen luxury golf courses—a shocking decision given the country’s longstanding animosity towards the quintessential game of bourgeois decadence. One of Fidel Castro’s first acts upon taking power in 1959 was destroying all but one of the country’s golf courses. The spared course was later used to mock golf-loving President Dwight Eisenhower when Castro and Che Guevara famously staged a photo shoot of themselves hitting the links in full military uniform.

Though the new golf courses were symbolically notable among the recent reforms, the right to buy and sell homes is expected to have the most significant impact on the Cuban economy. What that impact will be is the subject of some debate. Certainly the new system will remove much of the bureaucratic delays and under-the-table exchanges that defined previous housing exchanges, where homes could be traded as long as they were of roughly equal size and quality. Whether the legislation can alleviate Cuba’s housing crisis or encourage significant free-market activity is less clear. In a country where the average salary is $20 a month, and the government is the only recognized contractor, the new law’s effects may initially be limited. Few people other than those with relatives sending money from the US will be able to purchase homes, and the cash-strapped government is unlikely to build many new housing developments.

But, looking down the road, many analysts see the new legislation as the strongest sign yet that change is in the air in Cuba. "The liberalization of these markets will ignite new demands for reforms," economist Arturo Lopez-Levy told the Associated Press. "In the long run, the question will be: ‘How long can the economic genie be out of the bottle without people asking for more substantive political reform?’"


Food Fight

In the wake of the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposed changes to the federal lunch program last May, the National Potato Council (NPC) challenged the call for potato reductions in school lunches, launching the “Tell USDA to Keep Potatoes in Schools!” campaign. The proposed changes to the federally funded lunch program are a push to improve health amongst American children. According to The New York Times, approximately 40 percent of calories eaten by kids are consumed in the school lunch period. But with a third of American children either obese or overweight, the first overhaul in fifteen years seems well overdue. In addition to limits on fat and sodium, the USDA has called for reductions in potatoes and other sources of starchy carbs in favor of more fresh apples, peaches, spinach and broccoli.

Unlike past federal suggestions (see the Reagan Administration’s proposition that to save cash, ketchup be considered a vegetable,) the USDA’s rules reflect the latest research from the Institute of Medicine and the Harvard School of Public Health. For example, under the new plan, a ¼cup of tomato paste on pizza would no longer count as a vegetable. Although more stringent, the guidelines are also more costly: the proposal calls for increased spending on federal lunches totaling $6.8 billion over the next five years—approximately 14 cents per lunch.

Despite the fact that a potato isn’t biologically a vegetable—it’s a tuber—the NPC has positioned potatoes as a “gateway vegetable” capable of introducing students to other vegetables “in, around, and on top of the potato.” It remains unclear whether or not they consider bacon bits a vegetable.

The NPC’s tactics also include passive aggressive swipes at competitors, with the assertion that a single serving of baked potato is “an excellent source of potassium—far more than a banana. It’s also a good source of fiber—more than a serving of broccoli.” Hot potato, indeed. The NPC has also argued that potatoes are “kid pleasing,” adding that “familiar shapes make lunch fun.” Backed by $5.6 million from food companies, the movement has quickly gained traction.

With the help of Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), who once worked picking potatoes, and several farm-state senators, an amendment that struck down the USDA’s plan to limit starchy foods achieved unanimous approval on October 18th. While the bill is still pending in the House, Senator Collins told POLITICO, “I am delighted, and I have won."