[A-List] Havana Lifts Restrictions on Some Economic Data
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Wed Jan 7 12:57:09 MST 2009
Havana lifts restrictions on some economic data
By Marc Frank in Havana
Published: January 6 2009 02:00 | Last updated: January 6 2009 02:00
Communist Cuba is slowly lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding its
people and economy as demands from a more educated public, the
information age and the need to better manage its affairs erode
concerns about US snooping and the secretive instincts of bureaucrats.
Just a few years ago hardly any Cuban statistics were available
online. Land use, sales at agricultural markets and monthly tourism
arrivals, among other reports, were restricted.
It took months to obtain a few initial printed figures covering the
previous year's economic and social performance. A statistical
abstract of domestic information on one year was not published until
the end of the next.
But Raúl Castro has demanded more accurate information since he
stepped in for Fidel Castro, his ailing brother, in July 2006 and
officially became president in February last year.
In a speech to parliament in 2006 he attacked shoddy data as
"preventing us from knowing what has been done and what remains to be
A relative deluge of readily available information has since appeared,
at the centre of which is the website of Cuba's National Statistics
Office, www.one.cu, reinforced by graduates of its University of
Information Sciences. "Without a doubt the government is looking more
at different phenomena, from demographics to social and economic
issues," says Oscar Maderos, the young director of the NSO.
With celebrations on Thursday marking the 50th anniversary of Fidel's
triumphant arrival in Havana during the Cuban revolution, the
information on the site is one of the more tangible signs of thawing
government control under Raúl's presidency.
Last year the initial data for 2007 were released in January and the
statistical abstract made available online in June. October 2008
agricultural market sales and November tourism data are already on the
site, along with dozens of previously secret reports, such as a study
of internal migration.
Mr Maderos says the increasing skill of local webmasters and domestic
demand were driving the improvement, rather than outside users.
"We were swamped with demands for national, provincial and even
municipal information due to the universalisation of higher
education," he says.
Few students have computers, internet access or even phone lines, but
they can view the website using the government-controlled intranet at
work, school and state-run computer clubs.
Controversy still swirls over the reliability of the information
coming to light and important data remain secret: for example, the
most recent nickel production figures, debt and some balance of
payments information, crime statistics and details of the countries
from which overseas health workers - Cuba's most important source of
foreign exchange - send back service revenues.
Mr Maderos insists the information published by his office is credible
and gives a detailed, computer-aided explanation on how thousands of
his employees gather it across the land. "We have more offices than
anyone else in Cuba except the association of small farmers," he says.
Even so, users differ about the usefulness of the information on the website.
"I do use the page and find it surprisingly good because it's Cuba and
I wouldn't have thought they would make so much information
available," says a London-based debt broker, who wished to remain
Pavel Videl at the University of Havana's Centre for the Study of the
Cuban Economy says: "The page has improved a lot. There is more
transparency for us to work with. What's strange is that they seem to
be alone because you do not see similar progress with other
institutions that manage statistics, for example the central bank's
G.B. Hagelberg, an international agriculture and sugar industry
analyst, who often uses the website, says: "Government statistics
across the world are not immune to manipulation. The only way to keep
them reasonably honest is by creating competition within the system .
. . and there is none in Cuba."
In a country where the state still dominates economic activity, Mr
Maderos admits that his office has two roles: "To serve and control."
Information remains restricted because of US sanctions, he says. "Why
would the information we do release be false? You can't forget our
situation. We are under siege. It would be great if some day that
changed, but for now we remain vigilant."
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