Changes for Cuba

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Changes for Cuba

The Castro brothers are no longer in control. Will Miguel Díaz-Canel, their new leader, make changes? Wayne Ellwood writes about the possibilities for Cuba.


A singer sings to people waiting for their Covid-19 vaccinations in Havana, June 2021. ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI/REUTERS

Is it easy living next to the US? The Cubans don’t think so.

After the US helped drive out the Spanish in 1898, the relationship between the two countries was complicated. The US has made problems for Cuba since then. Cuba is the biggest island in the Caribbean, with Havana just 370 kilometres from Miami.

When the Spanish left, the Americans moved in, invested in the sugar industry, and controlled the government. US Congress passed a law after the Spanish-American war. It put US interests at the centre and got the naval base at Guantánamo Bay. Rum and Coke - Cuba libre – was then the national drink and baseball was the number one sport in Cuba. A number of corrupt dictators followed. They made money from US business interests in sugar and rum. In the 1920s and 1930s Havana was a popular place for rich Americans. It was also a place for the mafia to launder money and make profits from gambling and prostitution. A small number of people - white with Spanish roots got rich. But most people - mestizo and black – were poor and starved in the countryside.

That changed on New Year’s Day 1959, when Fidel Castro and his followers marched into Havana, took the Hilton hotel, and began a revolutionary, democratic government to help all Cubans.

Hours before, the dictator Fulgencio Batista and a small group of supporters ran away to the Dominican Republic. They took a lot of money with them.

Fidel and his supporters nationalized US companies and rich Cubans left the country, took their money, and went to Miami and New York.

Castro’s plans were for social justice and equality - land, healthcare, and literacy were the most important. But the US wasn’t happy.

The US tried to stop the revolution and ended the import of Cuban sugar, which was most of Cuba’s income from abroad. Moscow saw the possibility of a possible satellite close to the US and bought all the island’s sugar. This started Soviet economic support for Cuba until the end of the USSR in 1989.

Cuba’s dependence on Moscow became stronger and Fidel showed his communist feelings. So President Kennedy stopped all trade with Cuba to ruin the economy and end the new government in Havana.

This ending of trade with the US stayed for 60 years.

Today, the old revolutionaries are nearly gone. With Fidel’s bad health, his brother, Raúl, became President and head of the Communist Party (CPC) in 2006. In 2018, Raúl passed the president’s job to Miguel Díaz-Canel, a supporter of the revolution. In April 2021, the 61-year-old Díaz-Canel became head of the CPC when Raúl left the job at the age of 89. It was the end of an age. Cuba was without a Castro in control for the first time since 1959.


Protesters against the US ending of trade drive past the US Embassy in Havana, 28 March 2021. ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI/REUTERS

What about the revolution?

Is the revolution in danger? Maybe. For the first time there were demonstrations across Cuba in July 2021 with not enough medicines, basic foods, and essential consumer goods. Social media quickly showed pictures of the protests. The police stopped the demonstrations before the government shut the internet.

But the new leaders are not changing Castro’s ideas. But Díaz-Canel is not happy with protests. In 2020, a small group of artists and musicians (the San Isidro Movement) protested for more freedom and more internet access, he called them ‘Trumpists’ and supporters of US imperialism.

The Cuban state is nervous about change it cannot control. Security agents watch critics of the government and sometimes they go to prison. This is bad for Cuba’s human rights record. But there is a reason for the Cuban government’s fears including a history of the US trying to stop the revolution. For example, the US spends millions of dollars every year on anti-Cuban messaging, giving money to Radio Martí and TV Martí in Miami to send anti-government propaganda to the island.

Díaz-Canel and his supporters will need all the help they can get in the next few years.

The economy has its worst problems since Cuba lost its Russian support. After the Soviet years of support, there were shortages of basic consumer goods, foods, and petrol. Cuba survived with the growing tourism industry, with millions of dollars from Cubans living in the US, and subsidized oil from Venezuela.

There were fewer problems with President Obama. After his visit to Havana in March 2016 there were hopes that the US would relax sanctions. And this happened for a short time.

American businesses were happy when they saw new markets and investment possibilities.

But Trump stopped it all. He penalized companies shipping oil from Venezuela, stopped American cruise ships, and capped US money going to Cuba - nearly $3 billion a year. He called Cuba a ‘state sponsor of terrorism’, joining Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

Trump also stopped Cuba’s medical co-operation programmes. The country was sending doctors abroad since the 1960s to help with health emergencies. About 28,000 Cuban doctors work abroad, mainly in Africa and Latin America. During the pandemic, Cuba sent medical teams to many countries, including northern Italy in the early days of Covid-19.

The government says its export of doctors is about ‘solidarity’ with those in need. Even President Obama was impressed. ‘No-one should deny the help from the thousands of Cuban doctors for the poor and suffering,’ he said during his Havana visit. The programme also earns the country its most foreign currency, nearly $8 billion a year. The doctors earn less than $100 a month, a reason for dissatisfaction.

Problems with recovery

Covid-19 also ruined the island’s tourism industry. When Cuba went into lockdown in March 2020, closing its borders, tourist numbers went down from over four million in 2019 to fewer than one million in 2020.

Overall, the economy shrank by 11 per cent.

There is a shortage of essential foods like chicken, rice, pasta, and cooking oil. They are slowly stopping the use of ration cards, in use since the 1960s and important for food security, to ‘modernize’ the economy.

Díaz-Canel promised to continue reforms introduced by Raúl Castro more than ten years ago, allowing small businesses to grow and internet access to increase slowly.

In 2020, Cuba changed its difficult dual currency system to a single currency linked to the dollar. Economists say it will bring inflation and lead to more shortages.

Cubans are used to economic problems. Living standards fell after the Soviets left in 1991. The next few years will be very difficult.

US President Joe Biden’s government could make things easier by bringing back diplomatic links and starting trade again. But, so far, Cuba has not been important for his foreign policy.

Older Cubans remember the bad old days of dictators and are very proud of the revolution, especially in education and healthcare. Cuba has a lower infant mortality rate than the US and literacy is close to 100 per cent. But Cuba’s young people want more. Access to the internet and social media has opened their eyes. They are not happy with so little freedom and a controlling state.

The economy will depend on tourism returning. In the first two months of 2021 numbers were down by more than 90 per cent. It all depends on how quickly Canada, Spain, Germany, the UK, and France, the top five countries for tourists, can vaccinate their citizens and relax travel restrictions.

Cuba could help with that. The country’s good healthcare system mainly controlled the pandemic until a third wave in the spring. Even then, rates of infection were well below the rest of Latin America.

Surprisingly, for a small, poor country, Cuba has a world-class biotech industry and is researching its own Covid-19 vaccines. This is not easy with no US trade in essential chemicals necessary for their manufacture.

There are five vaccines in development. Two of them are in final clinical trials and one, the three-shot Abdala vaccine, got approval for emergency use in July. The only problem is a shortage of syringes, a result of the ending of trade with the US.

But Díaz-Canel said his government hopes to ‘vaccinate all the Cuban people before the end of 2021 with its own vaccines’.

If Cuba’s vaccination programme is successful, it will be a great success when the country has so many problems. There are also talking of offering the vaccination to tourists – for a small fee.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)