Cubanálisis El Think-Tank
ARTÍCULO ESPECIAL EN EL THINK-TANK DE CUBANÁLISIS
A tale of two Cubas
What, if anything, has the opening achieved?
Ronald Radosh & Allis Radosh, The Weekly Standard
American tourists are flocking to Cuba, making them the largest contingent to visit the island after Canadians. Demand has been growing ever since President Barack Obama loosened travel restrictions last year. The airlines jumped in too quickly. Cuba didn't have the infrastructure to handle the crowds—not enough hotel rooms or the amenities Americans are used to. With too many empty seats, they had to cut back their number of flights. Benefiting from the situation are the cruise ships. One can visit the country and return to comfortable quarters at night. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, at least nine cruise lines will be sailing to Cuba this year.
We decided to join the tourist influx to find out what effect—if any—Obama's 2014 opening to Cuba has had on the country. Obama's policy called for restoring diplomatic relations and reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana, as well as easing trade and travel restrictions. Those who favored the opening argued that the new exchanges between Americans and Cubans would enable the Cuban people to begin a slow movement towards democracy and would loosen the totalitarian control of the Communist party. The opposition, largely conservative, argued that since Obama did not set preconditions, Castro would use the opening only to benefit his near-bankrupt regime without making the hoped-for political changes.
The typical tourist of today certainly differs from those in the heyday of Castroism—from the '60s through the '80s—when Americans going to Cuba were all part of pro-Castro organizations that ran trips there to promote solidarity with the revolution. These were trips, to use the term made popular by the scholar Paul Hollander, of "political pilgrims," leftists who went to see societies that they thought offered alternatives to the corrupt, bourgeois one in which they lived. The late Saul Landau, perhaps the single biggest apologist for Fidel Castro in the United States, wrote that "Cuba is the first purposeful society that we have had in the Western Hemisphere where human beings are treated as human beings, where men have a certain dignity, and where this is guaranteed to them." As for Fidel Castro, Landau explained he was "a man who has been steeped in democracy, a humble man." He described Castro as a Jeffersonian and a Leninist. (The Nation, by the way, is still sticking to this narrative, offering tours that will be "an exciting journey" along "the trail of the Cuban Revolution.")
After the revolution, and especially once the U.S. economic embargo was imposed in 1962, it was difficult but not impossible for Americans to visit Cuba. They had to join a Canadian tour group or go through countries like Mexico and Spain. To protect them, Cuban customs would not stamp their passports. Obama's opening now allows Americans to travel to Cuba if they verify that they are going for reasons deemed by the Treasury Department not to violate the U.S. embargo. There are 12 approved reasons, including "educational activities," "public performances," "support for the Cuban people," "humanitarian projects," and the like. You are required to account for your time in Cuba either by going on an official tour or documenting your activities in a diary. We checked "journalistic activity," which is precisely what we engaged in.
The cruise lines and tour companies sponsor approved itineraries, with stops to explore Cuba's vibrant art and music scene and government-sponsored projects such as a new "farm-to-table" restaurant. There are de rigueur visits to Ernest Hemingway's house outside of Havana, the bars he frequented, a rum factory and museum, and a cigar factory where Cubans still roll the tobacco by hand, with a reader on a tall chair reading a book or a newspaper to the workers below.
Most tours include a trip to Havana's Revolution Square, where Fidel Castro would lecture for hours on end to thousands of Cubans shipped in to listen. Without an event taking place, all one sees now are other tourists taking pictures and gazing at the visage of Che Guevara outlined in bronze on the wall of the Interior Ministry building. At one end is a giant tower—a memorial to José Martí, the liberator of Cuba. Tourists are usually not informed that the structure was erected not by Fidel and Raúl but by Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro overthrew. Batista also built the newer sections of the famed Malecón, Havana's picturesque waterfront. With Cuba's dismal economy, the regime has never had the resources to do much in the way of public building, nor have they solved Cuba's chronic and severe housing shortage. Housing construction has fallen for 10 straight years. Indeed, on June l Cuba's official statistics office reported that 22,106 properties were built last year, the lowest figure since 2006, when 111,000 homes were constructed.
The dismal economy is by now an old story. Strapped for cash after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which put an end to decades of subsidies from Moscow, Fidel referred to the 1990s as a "special period," a euphemism for increased deprivation. Subsidies in the form of cheap oil from Hugo Chávez's Venezuela helped for a time, but Venezuela's own economic woes ended that aid. Cuba's government has increasingly turned to tourism to make up for the lost revenue. Tourists must therefore be embraced and made to feel comfortable, for they are an important economic lifeline. No longer will they encounter the ubiquitous signs of the past extolling the revolution and Fidel, though there are still a few rotting signs proclaiming, "Socialism or death," and the occasional iconic portrait of Che.
The average tourist may come away with the opposite impression of Cuba's economy: that it's booming. The area where most visitors spend their time is in the reconstructed Old Havana, a virtual Potemkin village. It is truly beautiful. The buildings have been restored to their former grandeur. It reminds one of walking through the Left Bank in Paris, only the buildings are bathed in cheerful Caribbean colors. Old Havana's streets are paved in cobblestone, and one passes an array of attractive cafés and restaurants. To gain relief from the heat, we stopped at one, The Chocolate Museum, for a delicious cold chocolate drink. Even in this tourist area, however, economic reality peeks through. You will find toilets without seats, since plastic is valuable and cannot be given even to a fancy establishment. Neither will toilet paper be provided. Tourists are advised to carry their own.
The guidebooks note that Old Havana has been designated a UNESCO world heritage site, with baroque and neoclassical buildings that make it "easy to imagine what life in Cuba was like 200 years ago." The area includes the San Cristobal cathedral, completed in 1777. Hemingway fans can go to one of his favorite watering holes, El Floridita, where they can sit by a statue of the writer and order a daiquiri. At the center of the reconstructed area is the Plaza Vieja, where you can view the Casa del Conde de Jaruco, with its famous stained-glass windows and camera obscura, a device that shows 360-degree views of the surrounding area projected from a 35-meter tower via mirrors and lenses. This particular plaza, which earlier served as an underground car park, was restored by the government in anticipation that Cuba could become a tourist destination. They were prescient; the government is now busily restoring the decaying buildings surrounding the area.
Viewing these sites, it's easy to see why growing numbers of Americans are anxious to visit. Some, of course, are old lefties who still believe in Castro's revolution. But most of the people we encountered said they wanted to see the once-forbidden island "before it changes." One couple sitting near us at a restaurant in Old Havana described it as "like entering a time warp. I want to see it before they fix it up," the woman said; her husband, a car enthusiast, said, "I want to ride in the old American cars before they disappear."
If they don't wander off the reservation, tourists can get the impression that the whole country is about to be made over in the same way as Old Havana is being transformed. But if they take the time to walk even a block or two through any side street, they will be shocked to see how average Cubans live today. Once-beautiful buildings are in advanced stages of decay. Many seem bound to collapse, and some regularly do. When he took over, Fidel promised Cubans housing. The housing they are being crowded into 50 years later is clearly not what they anticipated. We saw giant piles of garbage that had been rotting for days. Sadly, we saw more than one elderly man or woman picking through the piles in the hope of finding something of value, perhaps some leftover food.
This reality will intrude on a few tourists, as two of the finest restaurants are located in the worst part of Havana, on blocks where every building is black and decaying. One of them is the San Cristobal paladar, the restaurant where both Obama and Beyoncé dined while in Cuba. The other, La Guarida, is where we met with a dissident for dinner one night. La Guarida is in a mansion made famous by the Academy Award-nominated 1993 film Strawberry & Chocolate. Back then, tenants filled the collapsing building. After the film came out, the state paid some of them to move, allowing the top floor to be turned into a four-star restaurant. To reach it, one has to walk up several flights of crumbling stairs, and hold on to a railing that in parts sways and feels as if it is about to give way if you lean too hard. Needless to say, the restaurant was filled with tourists. The tab for three of us was $110 without the tip, a bargain by Western standards but five times what typical Cubans make in a month.
It is hard to be an average Cuban. When Raúl Castro took over from his ailing brother Fidel a decade ago, he promised reforms. One was to open up the state-run economy to allow for small privately owned businesses. Some progress has been made and now nearly a quarter of the working population, some 500,000 Cubans, participate in this sector, which is still tightly controlled by Cuba's powerful bureaucracy. The vast majority, though, still work for government-owned enterprises, which provide a monthly food ration that covers about two weeks. They have to rely on the black market for essentials like milk and eggs. But in doing so they are breaking the law.
You have to be ingenious to make do on $26 a month and Cubans certainly are, but it takes up enormous amounts of energy. They spend a lot of time finding parts for and fixing worn-out things from cars to lighters. They spend hours waiting in lines for their rations and for transportation to jobs. Dealing with the vast bureaucracy means more waiting. Much of what Cubans do is wait. We were told they had succeeded if they got one chore done a day. The extended family is an essential resource that functions like a mutual aid society. Someone will know someone who knows someone and will be there to help if needed. The lucky ones with relatives in the United States receive remittances and goods like TVs and even refrigerators when the relatives come to visit members of their family still living in Cuba.
No wonder, then, that many Cubans are not convinced tourism has helped them. A comment about this was recently made on the Generation Y website, founded by the dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez. On May 29, Marta Requeiro posted an entry titled "They deceived us with Tourism." She answers the query that anyone seeing the crumbling facilidades asks—why aren't they repaired?
Today a citizen struggles to get some bricks or some cement to repair their crumbling house and, even more painful, foreign companies are hired to carry out the construction of tourist hotels. We were deceived and it is time to stop believing that the profits that the tourism leaves will trickle down to the people and the most needy.
The government has signed contracts with more and more foreign chains to take over older properties, fix them up, and run them as luxury hotels. The Starwood group will soon manage one or two properties in Havana (unless President Donald Trump reverses the policy instituted by Obama). On June 7, central Havana saw the reopening of a gorgeous old building restored as a super luxury property called the Gran Hotel Manzana, developed by the Kempinski group in collaboration with the Cuban military, which owns the property.
The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski stands in front of the Parque Central and the Havana Gran Teatro, where major dance recitals and theatrical events take place. The Communist youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde explained that the hotel "forms part of a strategy that will allow Cuba to attract a high quality market." Indeed. The least expensive rooms start at $440 per night and the highest, the presidential suite, charges $2,485. Visiting celebrities and presidents will no longer have to stay in one of the Meliá group properties on the outskirts of the city, or in the older Hotel Nacional in the Vedado area, which charges only $200 a night or so.
True, unlike in the past, Cuban citizens can now set foot in these establishments; but no average Cuban could dream of affording a room. To add insult to injury, the Kempinski group did not trust Cuban workers to do a good job and used Spanish and Indian workers in the restoration work. These laborers received 1,500 euros a month, 10 times what their Cuban counterparts earn. However, it should be noted that Cubans who are fortunate enough to work in the hotels earn tips that greatly improve their family's finances.
On the first floor of the hotel there is a luxury mall, Manzana de Gómez, as fancy as any in North America. A shop girl who sells makeup earns $20 a month, while the face cream she sells goes for $162.40 an ounce. At the next shop you can buy a Bulgari watch for $10,200 or a Canon professional camera for $7,542. A few blocks away sit the broken-down buildings regular Cubans live in. "This hurts because I can't buy anything," Rodolfo Hernandez Torres, a retired electrical mechanic, told the Associated Press. Hernandez draws a monthly pension of $12.50.
To maximize its profits from tourism, the regime issues a two-tier currency, which creates one economy for foreigners and the Cuban elite and another for the majority of the people. Cubans are paid in pesos, equal to about four cents. Tourists, on the other hand, must change their dollars or euros into what are called CUCs, which are pegged to the dollar. A cab ride down the Malecón for a Cuban costs around 4 pesos. A tourist pays $10 to $15 for the same ride in CUCs. Near the Habana Libre hotel, built in the '50s by Hilton, sits the famed ice cream parlor Coppelia. There is always a long, long line of Cubans who wait for over an hour to buy a dish of ice cream for one peso. Foreigners pay $5 for the same dish but are served immediately via a separate entrance.
The Cuban government owns the majority of shares in every hotel built; they receive the bulk of the money spent by tourists as well. Even if one stays in an Airbnb (the online rental agency now operates in Cuba) or an individual room or apartment in someone's home, called a particular, the owner must fork over to the government a high percentage of the payment received. Similarly, owners of paladares, the independently run and owned restaurants, must pay a large tax. Both types of enterprise are highly regulated by the government, and hence the regime receives most of the profits from the private individuals' efforts. Even though they are highly regulated and taxed, Cubans have rushed to take advantage of the opportunities to turn their homes into money-making ventures, which far surpass a regular government wage.
The change they're still waiting for
So what have Raúl Castro's promised reforms produced? That was the question we put to dissidents and to Cubans without any political affiliation. Even those who nominally support their government are dismayed and discouraged—waiting and waiting for changes that never seem to come.
Asserting his position as his brother's heir, Raúl made a famous speech in 2007 in which he promised more dialogue with the Cuban people. He admitted that salaries were too low and called for a critical and constructive debate on how "to rid Cuba's 90 percent state-owned economy of bureaucratic inefficiencies." He understood that Cubans' pay was not sufficient to cover their needs. Therefore, he wanted to allow more foreign investment and open Cuba to tourism. Then he turned to bread and butter issues and said that it was everyone's right to drink milk and now they could. Those words later disappeared from the record, after his experts informed Raúl that there was not, in fact, enough milk available for every family.
We wanted to speak discreetly with someone working independently in the service and tourist industry who would not risk being fired from a government job. So we booked a two-and-a-half-hour cab ride around Havana with a young man in his 20s, who works for a small tour company and serves as a guide. To protect his identity, we will call him simply Roberto.
Roberto is a college-educated computer engineer who learned English on his own because, he told us, "all the computer manuals are in English." Like others in the tourist business, he acknowledged that he could earn far more than anyone employed by the government, since he can accept and keep tips. Roberto at first stuck closely to the approved government line; i.e., "your country may be richer, but all our education is free and the poorest person gets excellent and free medical care." There are chinks in that assertion, but we let it pass. In fact, the regular doctor's offices and hospitals in Cuba are so short of medical supplies that even aspirin is rationed. Those needing medicine must buy it on the black market. Hospitals are crowded, unsanitary, and ill-equipped for major surgery. The main hospital in Havana that serves tourists and regime apparatchiks is superb and anything but typical.
As time passed, Roberto gradually opened up, telling us he had tried to obtain a visa to America but had been turned down; he'd heard the United States offers only 2,500 a year. He said it was impossible to live in Cuba and that young people see no future there and want to leave. He hated that it was so difficult to access news. The Internet is expensive and you must buy online access, at very slow speeds, from the government. Near the end of our long drive, he told us: "This system isn't working. Something's got to change. I don't know if it's the economy, the government, or both, but it's near collapse. It can't go on much longer."
A similar comment may be found on an excellent YouTube video tour of Cuba, made by photographer Michael Melendy. He filmed from inside a shiny old American car that he used as a taxi. With the camera showing only the back of the driver's head, Melendy asks: "How is Cuba?" The answer:
I am going to tell you something. The true reality is one this government never says. While there's no change to the system it will continue to be the fraud and thievery like it's been to this day. If you take a good look at my country, I'm ashamed to say if we continue to have the presidents we have today spreading lies to the world you will see ruins. In Cuba, it looks like there is war—everything falling apart, everything destroyed. The destruction we see has nothing to do with the blockade. The other countries send us millions of dollars. It never goes to us. I don't know if they spend it on weapons. While Castro stays in power it will be disastrous. You think you can run a country for 50 years without development? False!
Has the government become less repressive and more open to finding new solutions, as Raúl had promised it would? One afternoon, we sat down for a few hours with a journalist who had taught at the University of Havana and once wrote for one of the official Cuban press organs. Let us call him Ernesto.
Ernesto is among the more than 50 people who write for an online paper called Havana Times, which the regime allows to be published. Since most Cubans cannot gain access to the Internet for anything but short emails, the regime is confident that the newspaper will not influence the populace at large. According to Ernesto, the regime doesn't care very much what is published outside Cuba. Their main concern is controlling the thinking of the Cubans inside. Its stories include tough anti-Castro articles that do not mince words. Recently, they ran an incredible video, based on an American civil rights film of the '60s that showed the brute forced used by Sheriff Bull Connor and his police and dogs in 1960s Birmingham. Their new version uses the same soundtrack, but instead of footage from the civil rights movement, it shows the brutal force used by Cuban security forces against the Ladies in White as they protest in front of a major church one Sunday. One sees the Damas de Blanco, whose husbands and relatives are political prisoners, being beaten by security forces, dragged through the street by their hair, and herded into vans to be sent to jail.
A recent issue of Havana Times features such headlines as "The Anti-Castro Opposition in Times of Trump," "Why I Left Cuba; My Life in Costa Rica," and "Cuba: Socialism, Private Property and Wealth." That last article discusses the growing inequality in a two-tier society of those with money and those without. Fidel Castro, as the saying here goes, "created equality by making everyone equally poor."
A June 7 op-ed by Jancel Moreno takes up the government's attempt to remind Cubans of U.S. efforts through the years to overthrow the regime. All government videos of past U.S. actions end with the phrase "We remember!" Moreno asks: "Have we forgotten how many Cubans were and are beaten up by government forces? Have we forgotten how many Cubans emigrate and leave everything behind because of repression? Have we forgotten how many Cubans are currently being kicked out of universities because of their political convictions?" He tells the regime: "WE ALSO REMEMBER!"
Ernesto told us how hard it is simply to live. Having lost both his university teaching job and his position as a journalist working for a government agency, he now depends on writing for any publication that will take his columns and notes that Havana Times does not pay contributors. Many of the nongovernment publications rely on donations from supporters. He says that he would not have taken any other course, because he did not become a journalist to tell lies for the regime, and now he is free to write and report as he pleases.
Ernesto also told us he had major differences with the hardline Cuban-American opponents of the regime who demand complete freedom in Cuba before dealing with the government or ending the embargo. They don't understand that "the embargo only helps Raúl Castro," he says, "and as Fidel did, he can blame the government's failures on its existence." But, he adds, if somehow Congress were to end the embargo, "Raúl also wins. He can say this proves their ability to have forced America to do what they want, because of their revolutionary persistence." Ernesto offered no solution for this quandary.
In his eyes, anti-Castro Cuban-Americans who want the embargo maintained and some of measures introduced by the Obama opening pushed back—perhaps making it tougher for Americans to travel to Cuba—are thinking as Americans and not Cubans. "Every Cuban here, on all sides," he claims, "wants the embargo ended. They all believe more trade and tourism from the U.S. will only help regular citizens, not just the regime."
Ernesto thinks that Cubans don't act to change things because they believe they can leave. Therefore, he approves of Obama's ending the "wet foot, dry foot" policy that granted asylum to any fleeing Cuban who reached American shores. Now those fleeing are turned back and returned to Cuba by the U.S. authorities. In his eyes, the policy was working as a safety-net for the Cuban regime. Castro got rid of those who might become dissidents and activists, and people thought they could always get to the United States. Now, he thinks, "being forced to remain in Cuba, they might become active members of an opposition that seeks to change Cuba towards democracy."
A Cuban Gorbachev?
Is there room within Cuba to politically challenge the status quo? To explore this, we met with Manuel Cuesta Morúa, the head of an organized opposition party, Arco Progresista, which defines itself as social democratic. Formed from a coalition of left-leaning organizations in July 2008, the party is deemed inconsequential by the regime, so it is allowed to exist and can even hold meetings. Perhaps it is tolerated because the party's statement of purpose makes clear it wants the U.S. embargo ended—a key regime demand—and because it does not overtly challenge the right of the Castro government to hold power.
Cuesta believes that the climate today would allow the formation of progressive but anti-totalitarian groups. Speaking to the press in 2008, he said, "we represent an option and a voice of a social minority that wants to become a political majority." He told us that their "approach is not to challenge them at the top and seek leadership of the country. Rather," he explained, "it was to start from bottom up, and first gain influence in various local municipalities and communities, where we can address the various ways in which the current government has ceased to deal with people's immediate concerns."
Seeking a "critical citizen majority," Cuesta believes that with Fidel Castro's passing, Cuba will begin to open and become more tolerant, despite Raúl Castro's desire to keep power within his own family and the Communist party. In particular, he points out that Raúl has said he is going to step down in 2018 and has promised new electoral rules.
This promise led Arco Progresista to set up what it calls Project 18. The party will start by running candidates in local municipal elections. Until now, such candidates have always been Communists or those backed by the party. Cuesta believes they can use Raúl's words to force the regime to permit them to run their own candidates in local races. "This," Cuesta says, "is a start."
Cuesta was born in Jamaica and learned his flawless English from his mother. He dresses sharply in a sport jacket, slacks, and good shoes, looking like any relaxed businessman out for the night. At the University of Havana, he majored in African history. The turmoil under Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union and the period of perestroika influenced him tremendously. He and his friends formed a discussion group, where they talked about whether a similar opening needed to take place in Cuba. When they went public in 1991, he lost his university job as a researcher. His discussion group, he told us, set down the roots of the movement that grew into Arco Progresista.
Cuesta and his party take the position that all the Cuban people want the embargo to end, that greater contact with the United States will increase the welfare of a people deprived of necessities. He acknowledges that those who want it to remain see it as leverage that can be used by the United States to force the regime to make more concessions on human rights. However, he says, if supporters of the embargo were to think first of the welfare of the people in Cuba, they would reconsider their views on the embargo.
He seeks to press the regime for free access at high speeds to the Internet, and notes how far Cuba lags behind the rest of the world in this regard. However, Castro is unyielding. The regime wants continued control of information, to prevent the people from learning on their own what is happening in the world and from hearing arguments opposed to communism. Raúl Castro, he says, is working with both Russia and China to create a firewall that would enable the government to limit Cubans' access to approved sites only. In other words, it would be a heavily censored and unfree version of the Internet.
Is there anyone in the ruling party who could turn out to be a Cuban Gorbachev, who might move the regime to moderate its harsh Stalinist methods of control? "Not yet," he says, "but possibly in the not-distant future." He tells us that a prominent reformer in the party leadership once argued with Fidel Castro that the Internet had to be open and free. Fidel responded, "The Internet is our enemy." A few days later, that person was removed from his prominent leadership post and has not been publicly seen since. Two other top Communist leaders who wanted to move beyond Raúl Castro's limited economic reforms, he told us, also lost their jobs.
Cuesta's desire for a nonviolent and democratic future for Cuba that maintains a working welfare state is but one position in the dissident community. There are other dissidents who strongly support the embargo. If it were lifted, they argue, the regime would attain a major victory without having to lighten its repression. Berta Soler, the brave leader of the Ladies in White, has often spoken on behalf of maintaining the embargo. She obviously believes that the regime cannot and will not change, and that the United States should not abandon its last piece of leverage. When James Kirchick interviewed her two years ago, she told him that the United States has to make demands of Castro, because so far the "American government is receiving nothing." Her argument still has merit. Repression continues and those the government fears may be gaining strength are still being arrested and some even killed.
In 2011, Oswaldo Payá died in a car crash. He was the leader of the Varela Project, a movement to gather signatures demanding a free national election and other reforms. He was traveling with others to a meeting of his group, the Christian Liberation Movement, when a car assumed to be from the state security services rammed them from the back, killing Payá and an associate.
The government clearly sees the Christian Liberation Movement as a threat. We were told that the movement has been gaining adherents in the area where Fidel and Raúl Castro were born. On May 25, Amnesty International put out an emergency bulletin announcing that a provincial court had upheld a three-year prison sentence against the organization's current leader Eduardo Cardet, who is being held in the prison at Holguín in southeast Cuba. He was arrested on November 30, 2016, five days after Fidel Castro's death. Observers attribute the arrest to his telling Spanish radio that Fidel Castro was "very much hated and rejected by our people." Witnesses told Amnesty International that he was violently pushed off the bicycle he was riding and roughed up by four plainclothes police and one uniformed one. They put him in handcuffs and then beat him up, with citizens watching. He was charged with attacking an official of the state. As Cardet himself put it, "Political activities are passed off as criminal offenses, such as contempt of or offenses against the authorities, and the political police use these classifications to lock up dissidents."
The opening, in short, has not ended repression. In the past, dissidents could face 25-year sentences and were regularly tortured in prison and maltreated. Even the American Alan Gross, falsely accused of being a spy, suffered extreme weight loss and lost a number of his teeth in five years behind bars, and was on the verge of dying before he was released. And he was only being used by the Cubans as a bargaining chip to force the release of five Cuban spies who had been convicted and imprisoned in the United States. Sentences for political prisoners these days tend to be shorter than in the past and deployed mainly against leaders the authorities temporarily want out of the way. Amnesty International reports a monthly average of 827 politically motivated detentions in 2016.
We think, based on observation and the reports of those we spoke to, that the Cuban dissidents who favor unilaterally lifting the embargo have the weakest argument. If the regime were to ease the repression and allow independent media to publicly function, some reciprocal moves by the United States would make sense. But advocates of the embargo are correct when they note that it is the Castro regime that gets the money coming in from trade and tourism. Real benefits have not flowed to the Cuban people.
Moreover, Cuba's economy has been on the verge of collapsing for decades. The latest crisis is the tailspin of Nicolás Maduro's Cuba-friendly regime in Venezuela, which itself is on the brink of collapse. Recently, Raúl Castro called for solidarity with Maduro and offered all Cuban support necessary against the Venezuelan people, described of course as "fascist" mobs seeking the overthrow of a revolutionary government. One didn't see—as one might have seen under similar circumstances in the '70s and '80s—Cuban people marching in the streets with solidarity banners in support of the Venezuelan leader and his thugs. In making his plea, Raúl seems to be doing what he feels he is supposed to do in a perfunctory fashion, as if he knows the Fidelista era is passing, that he is not his brother and has not an ounce of charisma, and that his words more and more fall on deaf ears. He is repeating old themes, and knows that no one is listening.
As blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote last December, even the government now acknowledges the negative numbers when reviewing economic growth. "Cuba is not growing; production is not recovering, and the so-called Raúlist reforms have not given citizens a better life," she wrote. "The island is heading toward the abyss of defaults, cuts in vital sectors of the economy, and continued stagnation." And yet it still stages military parades on Revolution Square that cost hundreds of thousands of pesos. All this, she writes, when the GDP fell 0.9 percent in the previous year. The people see this and realize this is money that could have been used to fix roads or to repair their decaying homes and apartments.
Sánchez is correct. Raúl and his government issue report after report on how the economy must improve. Yet they cannot bring themselves to embrace a system of open and free markets. They cling to a system based on tight state control and regulation, and to the myth that they can maintain a planned centralized economy. Even with the success of the paladares, these small-business owners are not allowed to enter partnerships or to reinvest profits in their enterprises. The government dictates the number of seats allowed in a restaurant; it began at 12 and has been allowed to rise only to 50.
Worse, if a restaurant seems too successful, its owners are accused of profiteering and not acting in a socialist manner. Just this week, the government accused two successful paladar owners of "money laundering." The properties—Lungo Mare and El Litoral—were seized and their owners arrested. The owners' homes were raided, ostensibly in a search for hidden funds. The raid is a warning to other paladar owners that they had better not make too much money or be too successful, and a reminder that they are beholden to the Communist regime.
The View from Padura
All of these impressions were confirmed by the man many people consider to be the greatest living Latin American novelist after the passing of Gabriel García Márquez, Leonardo Padura. He is perhaps best known for The Man Who Loved Dogs, a novel that deals with Ramon Mercader, Leon Trotsky's assassin, Cuba, the Spanish Civil War, and the Soviet Union, and was widely acclaimed a masterpiece. His current novel, Heretics, deals with the Jewish exile from Spain, the life of Cuba's Jewish community, the Jewish diaspora of World War II, and the mystery of a lost Rembrandt painting. Americans might know him from his detective series, Four Seasons in Havana, on Netflix.
He kindly agreed to meet us at an ice cream and pastry parlor he likes to frequent. We got in a taxi and were driven around for an hour and a half. It became apparent that the driver had no knowledge of Havana neighborhoods, streets, or how to get from one place to another. Evidently anyone who has access to a car can become a cabbie, and one is at his mercy. We never got to meet Padura.
Fortunately, he gave an interview to the former Sandinista editor Carlos Fernando Chamorro, which appeared on June 7 in Confidencial, a Nicaraguan weekly. Chamorro asked many of the same questions we would have. Padura is a controversial character; Miami Cuban exiles do not like or trust him, because he chooses to stay and write in Cuba, living in the same house he grew up in. He tells everyone that he cannot write unless he lives and breathes as a Cuban, and although he fully understands the regime's pitfalls, he feels he must stay a Cuban and suffer the life of his countrymen. Padura notes that although his novel won many major literary prizes, in Cuba it was only published in a small limited edition, without any publicity or reviews. Padura, a man who makes political judgments very carefully, finds himself discouraged at present. Chamorro asks him whether the reforms have produced better economic results or opened things up politically. He answers:
It's like living with a large question mark, and we have little information beyond knowing that in February of 2018 Raúl's period as president of the country ends. However, it seems that his term as First Party Secretary doesn't end, which means he's going to continue playing a fundamental political role. In the Cuba that begins in those moments, several different names are being floated as the possible future president of Cuba, including current First Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel. But—what's really going to happen? How is it going to play out? The government is planning for a process of continuity, and I believe there will be continuity, but it's going to have to be layered with changes that go much deeper than those that have occurred up until now.
Padura acknowledges "there've been small economic openings," but thinks "there has to be a greater deepening, above all in this economic opening. Last year Cuba was in recession, the Gross National Product decreased; this year it's going to increase very little, and an economic debt is being accumulated, an aging infrastructure that requires a major economic action to better the life of Cubans."
Chamorro replies that he has recently been in Cuba, and young people he talked to told him they feel they are only "spectators" to reform, since "others make the decisions and set the direction of the country." Young people feel that they have "no future in their country." Padura answers that "there's been a major drain of young Cuban capital, because many of those young people who leave had the best education: computer engineers, doctors, physicists, etc. If the principal problem that we have is of an economic character, then that intelligence is of the greatest importance."
Acknowledging the scores of new Internet publications, Padura notes that in the past, they "would have been unimaginable in Cuba. Today they exist." The problem, he says, is the same one we noted with the Havana Times: "They're read more outside of Cuba than inside, precisely because of the very limited access to the Internet that Cubans have." Still, they help add to the "diversification of opinion" and open "spaces for debate." Padura bemoans that there isn't any political opening. In fact, he sees things getting worse. His last words in the interview are shocking: "Even in the area of culture," he says, "I feel that there were spaces that were much more open five or six years ago but that now are much more controlled, much more closed. So I don't believe that there's any will for an immediate political opening."
If this is the case, as it indeed it seems to be, then the Trump administration may be right in saying, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did in Senate hearings on June 13, that since tourist travel brings money only to the rulers "and not to the people of Cuba," then steps have to be taken to "pressure the regime to change." Tillerson said that with rapprochement, "we think we have achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior of the regime in Cuba and its treatment of its people." He asked whether the United States was only giving money to the regime that enables it to survive. If so, he argued, it means they have "little incentive… to change," and hence human rights in Cuba will not get any better.
On the other hand, the regime has not responded to economic pressure since the embargo was consolidated in 1962, three years after Fidel Castro seized power. It still tightly controls the lives of its citizens and holds them in poverty. Wishing only the best for Cuba's long-suffering people, we are ourselves ambivalent on the question of tourism. The right of U.S. citizens to travel where they want is a consideration certainly deserving of weight. And against the fact that it would deny money to a repressive regime, one has to weigh the fact that restricting tourism would also deprive Cubans of a chance to make Americans hear their cries for change. It would also deprive many Cubans of the opportunity to use their own initiative to gain a better living than the meager wage paid them by the state. With Cuba, there are never easy answers.
Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of a 1976 book, The New Cuba: Paradoxes and Potentials, in which he writes about his 1974 trip to Cuba. Allis Radosh is an independent historian. They are coauthors of A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.