Socialists in the United States have long followed the challenges facing Cuba, a nation which just a couple of years ago had become more accessible to visitors from the United States. Cuba today however is under threat from the Trump administration. This comes at a time when the island nation transitions from almost 60 years of being led by the Castro brothers, Fidel and then Raúl. With U.S. newspapers focusing on Venezuela and the situation at our southern border, Cuba is too often relegated to the back pages, if that.
What’s happening in Cuba now?
Cuba has a new leader, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who took office in April 2018 after Raúl Castro stepped down at age 86. A new constitution, approved earlier this year by Cuban voters, followed a series of community consultation meetings.
With this document, Cuba solidified its shift toward market socialism, continuing to open Cuba up to foreign investment and allowing the operation of selected categories of small entrepreneurs.
There is one major worry and one major disappointment in the new constitution and in the Cuban policy direction under Díaz-Canel.
The first is that Cuba will continue with its dual currency system. Most workers are paid in Cuban pesos, but some advantaged Cubans have steady access to the Convertible Cuban Peso (CUC), which is equivalent in value to U.S. dollar. Those with CUCs are much better off; those without have trouble buying enough supplies to make it to the end of the month, and cannot dream of purchasing such luxuries as flat screen televisions, new smart phones and data plans, or cars. Cuba is steadily dividing into two groups, those with CUCs from working in the tourist trade or received from relatives in Florida, and those without. And this divide is racial: Cubans of color are least likely to get hired in the tourist trade and seldom have family members in the United States. The result is that income inequality in Cuba is rising, undermining one of the key gains of the Cuban Revolution.
A great disappointment of the new Cuban constitution was the abandonment of a reform that would have authorized same-sex marriage. This provision had initially been part of the new constitution, but party leadership withdrew the proposal after public opposition became clear during community consultation meetings. The issue may be revisited later, but for the moment gay and lesbian marriage is still outlawed in Cuba. Not even same-sex civil unions are permissible.
Shortages in Cuba
Cuban households are experiencing shortages of flour, bread, chicken, eggs, and other basic needs. The collapse of the Venezuelan economy has brought an end to the Venezuelan aid upon which Cuba had relied. Assistance had come mainly in the form of oil, but petroleum imports from Venezuela have fallen by more than half in the last four years. Cuba is starved for foreign exchange, resulting in critical shortages due to the island’s reliance on imports for 80% of its food needs.
Trump Tightens Sanctions on Cuba
Exacerbating the food crisis is the continuation and deepening of the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba, with Trump applying heretofore unenforced articles of the U.S. 1996 Helms-Burton Act. The European Union, Canada, and other nations are now facing U.S. fines and loss of access to the U.S. market if they trade with Cuba. The E.U. is challenging U.S. policy before the World Trade Organization.
Meanwhile, some U.S. firms are now being permitted to sue those companies that they believe profited from Cuba’s expropriation of their holdings after the 1959 Revolution. All other nations settled long ago, but there are 5,913 remaining U.S.-based lawsuits against Cuba. Carnival Cruise Lines is being sued for using Cuban port facilities, which were built in part with private funds, and Royal Caribbean as well as Norwegian Cruise Lines may likewise face lawsuits.
Getting to Cuba is Now Harder
Trump has also announced new restrictions on travel to Cuba from the United States. Those with family in Cuba may travel there, but others may not without special permission. Some 2 million Cuban-Americans and Cubans now live in the United States (with over $3.5 billion USD sent back to Cuban families each year).
Starting this June, all cruise ship visits to Cuba from the United States were canceled. Cruise ships from the United States had only started arriving in 2016, bringing 800,000 visitors to Cuba a year. Now even private vessels cannot make the trip legally.
The United States has also ended all “people-to-people” travel authorization for visiting Cuba. The most popular remaining visa category to use for going to Cuba is the “support for the Cuban people” classification. However, under this exception, Americans must prove that they will be staying at Airbnbs (casas particulares), eating at small family restaurants (paladares), and “supporting” other self-employed Cuban capitalist entrepreneurs (cuentapropistas).
The Internet Comes to Cuba, Sort Of
Cuba has opened up a 3G network, with home Internet plans beginning at $7 USD a month. Service includes access to The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Miami Herald, Twitter, Facebook, and much more, but even at this price the Internet is still out of reach for most Cuban households. There are also public Wi-Fi zones in Cuba. People can buy a card with a password, usually costing $1 to $2 USD, and go to one of the zones (usually a plaza or park) to use the Internet. Still, nearly two-thirds of Cubans do not regularly connect. Instead, most Cubans pay about 50 cents a week to copy onto a thumb drive a packet (paquete) of pirated U.S. TV shows. Most people just want to buy the paquete of Spanish-language soap operas from Miami.
The “Sonic Attack” Story
In 2016, 24 members of the U.S. embassy staff in Havana reported concussion-like symptoms. Employees and some family members fell sick, first feeling symptoms at the embassy, then at their homes, and finally at two Havana hotels, the Capri and the Nacional. Victims complained of ringing in the ears, memory problems, trouble concentrating, headaches, feeling dizzy, and difficulty sleeping. Later, some at the Canadian Embassy said they were feeling sick, too.
After batteries of tests, including MRIs, U.S. medical authorities could find no evidence that anyone had suffered a concussion. Cuba, too, conducted wide-ranging examinations, but could not determine the source of the symptoms. The embassy personnel and their families have stopped reporting new cases.
A February 2018 article in Scientific American and a February 2019 article in Vanity Fair both suggested that this episode was a case of “psychological contagion,” that is, mass hysteria. Victims hotly deny this.
One of the possible causes identified by U.S. officials for the symptoms experienced by U.S. citizens in Havana was a purported sonic attack, although U.S. scientists and military experts said that they knew of no existing sonic weapon that could have caused the symptoms. In 2017, Trump expelled a number of Cuban diplomats from the United States in retaliation for this alleged attack. He has also reduced the embassy staff in Havana from 50 to 14. Many of those needing help at the U.S. embassy in Havana now must travel to Guyana to receive assistance.
Change won’t be coming soon. It would literally take an act of Congress to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Today this is politically impossible.
Some economists believe that lifting the U.S. economic blockade could boost the Cuban economy by anywhere from 2% to 5% percent a year.
Poll after poll has shown that a large majority of Americans favor ending the embargo. U.S. elections come in November 2020, and we will see if this outlook is reflected in the voting. If it is, some economic hardships will be alleviated, and U.S. travel to Cuba would become easier.