Cuba’s Pain Is Not Washington’s Gain

Cubans are, by necessity, talented at getting by. Yet even they have limits, and this past weekend thousands of fed-up citizens stepped out in what became unprecedented island-wide protests over acute shortages of food, medicine and fuel. The pain of a pandemic that has shut down tourism, combined with the impact of a surge in global food prices, an inefficient state-dominated economy, a stifling U.S. embargo and blackouts — both literal and political — proved too much. Social media provided the accelerant.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel has no quick fixes to ease the discontent or escape the deepest recession since the “special period” that came after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The government is counting on success with homegrown Covid-19 vaccines to return some version of normality. Yet coronavirus cases have risen sharply, much-needed currency reforms have pushed prices higher and reserves are running as thin as popular patience. Help from Venezuela has dwindled, and the government has little revolutionary charisma to fall back on — the Castro dynasty ended in April, and most Cubans are too young and too well-informed.

The likely outcome is that Havana will muddle through, leaning on officials’ lengthy crisis experience in the absence of support from multilateral organizations, and hanging on for the relief that will eventually come with the pandemic’s ebb. Yet there is considerable risk here, for Cuba and for its neighbors. Havana needs to make haste and press ahead with liberalization, plus the creation of a fully fledged private sector if it is to revive an economy that shrank 11% last year — around as much as it did back in 1991. Internal factors weigh heavily, and Cubans will take convincing to believe that reform efforts are genuine. As Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz told officials, people do not eat plans.

But Washington can do its part too. U.S. hardliners argue that keeping the squeeze on will bring democracy. In fact, in a region where the opposite of the status quo is often chaos, the opposite is true. 

Cuba’s Pain Is Not Washington’s Gain

U.S. President Joe Biden has so far disappointed Cubans’ hopes of détente. The political constraints are clear: Latino voters in Florida, home to large numbers of Cubans as well as Venezuelan and Nicaraguan exiles, supported Republican candidate Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential poll, happy with his tough stance. Mid-term elections are fast approaching, and Democrats are eager to limit the damage.

Biden still has room to repair some of the more gratuitous measures brought in by Trump, starting small by loosening restrictions on remittances — currently limited to $1,000 per quarter — and on the institutions used to send cash back, plus allowing travel for relatives and tourists, who take with them U.S. dollars and goods, alleviate average Cubans’ plight and promote the American dream directly to ordinary families — just as visitors to and from the West did to Soviet citizens decades ago. He can help the fight against Covid-19 by supporting access to equipment like syringes, where shortages have hampered efforts to distribute even the country’s own vaccines — Cuba has inoculated a respectable, but insufficient, 27% of its population with at least a first dose. In time, that can lead to necessary but trickier steps like removing the country from Washington’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, a spiteful last-minute move by the Trump administration.

Cubans would feel the impact of such steps. Consider that only roughly a million tourists made it in 2020, a quarter of the previous year’s total and a fraction of the expected five million. December saw a more than 80% drop, battering small-time entrepreneurs. Food inflation meanwhile is hurting all economies that rely on imports of staples, and Cuba’s agricultural sector, burdened with bureaucracy, terrible logistics, insufficient inputs to enrich soil and poor planting decisions, is failing to fill the gap. 

Fortunately the pandemic has been better managed. Cuba moved fast and, with an impressive nine doctors per 1,000 inhabitants, has logged a coronavirus case fatality rate — the proportion of deaths among all those infected — of 0.6%, compared with a global rate of 2.2%. The U.S. state of Florida, with almost twice the population, has had more than nine times the number of Covid-19 cases and 24 times the number of deaths. Even so, Cuba is fighting a variant-fueled outbreak far worse than anything seen to date. 

Cuba’s Pain Is Not Washington’s Gain

Obviously, the primary responsibility for Cuba’s troubles rests with the government’s long-standing failures to meet the needs of its people. Diaz-Canel has taken significant steps of late, including painful but necessary monetary unification that ended a dual currency system with multiple exchange rates. He needs to continue reducing state involvement, tackle the result of years of poor capital allocation, promote a real private sector — not just allow self-employment and non-agricultural cooperatives. The trouble is that as things stand, he isn’t wrong when he says that the previous U.S. administration’s measures are asphyxiating the economy. Biden can whip away that cover.

A scenario where economic pain pushes Cuba to beg for instant democracy is unlikely. It hasn’t worked for decades, and underestimating the government’s ability to hang on even today would be unwise. Popular protests produce regime change far more rarely than is widely understood. Listening to calls for outside military action would, of course, be lunacy.

Far better for Washington to bet on a sustained, progressive shift toward political and economic openness and to build links directly with Cubans. There were calls among protesters on Sunday for an end to dictatorship, dozens of arrests and internet blackouts, as the government sought to dampen demonstrations. But bear in mind that, as in 1994’s Maleconazo demonstrations over similar privations, anger over long, hot queues, insufficient food and medicine was what brought Cubans out — a coalition of the fed-up. That crisis, prelude to a summer exodus of more than 30,000 Cubans for the U.S., changed relatively little. This opportunity doesn’t have to be wasted.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was an associate editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and editor and correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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