Cubans have had enough of communist failure
The pandemic has exposed deep-rooted issues with the island nation’s failing command economy.
14 July 2021 •
You’d have to be either desperate or incredibly brave to demonstrate against a regime as oppressive as Cuba’s. Yet these two impulses combined have triggered the communist island nation’s largest protests in three decades. Everywhere from small towns to the capital, Havana, crowds have taken to the streets chanting, “We are not afraid!” and “Freedom!” Many roar out the dissident anthem Patria y Vida, parodying a famous Fidel Castro slogan from the 1950s, “Patria o Muerte” (“fatherland or death”), as “fatherland and life”.
It is early days, but there is a sense that in a country where protests are normally repressed with notable ferocity, a spontaneous eruption of this scale suggests ordinary Cubans have crossed the Rubicon. As a measure of the precariousness of his position, President Miguel Díaz-Canel interrupted TV broadcasts to urge regime supporters to inflict vigilante justice on protesters, perhaps fearing they are now too numerous to be jailed or contained by the army alone.
Naturally, the regime has resorted to its usual tactic of blaming US sanctions for Cuba’s woes, despite the embargo’s long-standing food and medical exemptions. Others see the pandemic as the culprit, with greater justification. As nations closed their borders to halt the spread of the virus, travel to Cuba plummeted. In the process, the island lost its all-important source of hard currency, the US dollars it uses to service its most basic needs. Covid-19 has exposed the reality that without Western money, Cuba has no real economy of its own.
Authoritarian regimes often piggyback on benefits derived in free-market countries; take the Soviets and their use of industrial espionage in the Cold War or China’s corporate spying network today. In a not entirely dissimilar way, the absence of any functioning market has left Cuba’s economy parasitically reliant on remittances. Cuban-Americans finance their relatives on the island; flying into Havana bearing basics such as food, medicine, clothing, and US dollars, the crucial lubricant that greases the wheel of Cuba’s black economy.
Before the pandemic, 10 flights a day were leaving from Miami; it is now around three a week. The collapse of remittances, tourism and poor sugar harvests – one of the few things Cuba actually does produce – have conspired to create a perfect storm of misery.
Of course, food shortages had dominated Cuban daily life for decades. Forcing farmers to sell most of their crops below market price, the command economy discouraged both production and any kind of agricultural innovation – leaving the country reliant on imports for up to 80 per cent of its food (bought with US dollars). Since the pandemic, and with the collapse of foreign currency, farmers are increasingly keeping what they produce for personal consumption, exacerbating shortages.
Given all this, Western progressives’ long-standing love affair with communist Cuba seems inexplicable. For years, they parroted their propaganda lines; blaming Cuba’s problems on US sanctions alone, and venerating certain aspects of the regime. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn went further still. In 2019, John McDonnell, the then shadow chancellor, pledged political and financial support, and promised to be Cuba’s “staunchest allies” against the US. In 2006, Newsnight ran a special programme on what we could learn from the Cuban “NHS”.
Now that healthcare system is buckling under the strain of Covid, not helped by the government’s tactic of “sending” Cuban doctors to work abroad, while expropriating most of their earnings for the fatherland. When cases surged at the advent of the delta variant, the Cuban system proved woefully ill-equipped to cope. But the foundations were laid long before the pandemic.
Elsewhere, Western tourists flocked to Cuba for its “unspoilt” experience. They embraced the novelty of visiting a country shorn of capitalist trappings. Clearly, tourism adds vital revenue. Yet there is an element of imperialism to it as well; as if Cuba existed merely as a time-capsule novelty for visitors who, unlike the Cubans themselves, may leave whenever they like.
In reality, Cuba’s dual economy has created a grotesque two-tier society. The regime builds four-star hotels for tourists, and houses members of its cosseted political elite in luxury, while consigning ordinary people to crumbling homes. For the masses, daily life is defined by indignities – shortages of soap, toothpaste and other basic products, hours of queuing each day. Hotel maids and taxi drivers often earn more than surgeons simply due to their proximity to hard currency.
Communist regimes almost always begin with grandiose claims, like the promise of security in exchange for freedom. As we are so tragically seeing in Cuba, what emerges is invariably the worst of all possible worlds; a system that is oppressive, abusive – and still unable to provide basic services to its people. The pandemic has certainly tipped Cuba over the edge. But in truth, the Cubans are rising up because communism is a disaster wherever it is imposed.