Cuba: From Worse to Impossible (and We Haven’t Hit Bottom Yet) / Iván García

Beggar sleeping. See details of picture below.

Ivan Garcia, 3 June 2017 — In coming days when the administration of the unpredictable Donald Trump, following four months of review, announces its Cuba policy, it could be that Obama’s guidelines are retained save for touch-ups of a few items such as doing business with military enterprises that directly benefit the dictatorship.

Good news for the regime would be that the White House were to maintain the status quo.

To appease the internal dissident movement and a segment of the historic exile community that supported his election bid, Trump will demand respect for human rights, economic liberty and freedom of expression, and blah, blah, blah.

But the Castroite autocracy will counterattack with plausible and powerful arguments.

And it will point a finger at the Trump administration, which accuses his own country’s press of being his worst enemy and which makes multi-million-dollar deals with the Saudi monarchy, a government that violates innumerable human rights and reduces women to mere objects. All of which makes it not the best moral paragon to speak of freedoms.

During the Obama era–my god, how the regime misses him–Castroism did not allow small private businesses to access credit nor import products from the US.

The Cuban government’s strategy is simple. They want to do business with the powerful Norte, all comers, but with state–or military–run concerns as the sole partners.

If Trump maintains the scenario unfolded by Obama, i.e., academic, cultural, business and political exchanges between both nations, Raúl Castro will probably make his move and grant greater autonomy to small private businesses on the Island so as to placate the New York real estate mogul.

Not a few small private entrepreneurs, perhaps the most successful ones, are children or relatives of the olive-green caste, and they head up successful enterprises such as the Star Bien paladar (private restaurant), or the Fantasy discotheque.

If the panorama does not change, the regime will continue its diplomatic and academic offensive, utilizing its agents of influence in the US to continue efforts to bring down the embargo, or at least weaken it until it becomes a useless shell.

For the olive green autocracy, the plan to counteract that “damn obsession of US elites with democracy and liberties” involves conducting sterile negotiations that only buy time.

The Palace of the Revolution wants to change, but only in the style of China or Vietnam. It does not understand how those two communist countries can partner with the US while Cuba cannot. Castroite strategy is headed in that direction.

There are two subliminal messages coming from the military junta that governs the Island.

First: With an authoritarian government of social control in place, political stability is assured and there is no risk of a migratory avalanche or of the Island becoming a base of operations for Mexican drug cartels.

Second: Were there to be a change that provoked the people to take to the streets, the Island could become a failed state.

Trump, who is not known for his democratic qualities and has the discernment of an adolescent, could take the bait and do an about-face. “After all,” he might think, “if we’re partners with the monarchies in the Gulf, we continue to buy oil from the detestable Maduro government, and I want to make a deal with Putin, what difference if I play a little tongue hockey with Raúl Castro or his successor?”

But Trump is an uncontrollable reptile. And Cuba is not a center of world power, and it has a small market and laughable consumer power. Thus it could be that Trump will play the moralist and make demands that not even he himself lives up to, just to satisfy the Cuban-American political bloc in Miami.

Whatever happens, Trump has begun shooting tracer bullets. His announcement of a drastic $20 million cut in funding for dissident projects favors the Havana regime.

It is likely that this was not Trump’s intention. But remember that he is not a Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He is a man in his third age with the mind of a primary school student.

With all that the Island autocracy is going through–reductions in petroleum from Venezuela and a crisis that could annihilate Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, leaving Cuba bereft of an important economic support; Russia supplied a shipment of fuel but is asking where will the money come from next time; and a Raúl Castro who is supposedly destined to surrender power–for the military mandarins the scene that is coming into view at the moment is the worst possible.

Don’t worry about the repression. Hard-core dissidents will never want for punches and slaps. But in a country at its breaking point, any spark can give rise to a conflagration of incalculable proportions.

Right now, the average salary in Cuba is 27 dollars per month, but to live decently requires 15 times that amount. And Havana, the capital of the Republic, has gone for a week without water.

Food prices are through the roof. Public transit has gone from bad to worse. And, as if we were living in Zurich, Samsung has opened on the west side of the city a store (more like a museum) where a 4K Smart TV goes for $4,000, and a Samsung 7 Edge costs $1,300, double its price in New York.

Havanans, mouths agape, go to gaze and take selfies with their cheap mobiles. This is the snapshot of Cuba. A mirage. And all during a stagnant economic crisis dating back 27 years which few venture to guess when it will end.

While we thought we were in bad shape, the reality is that we could be worse off. And nobody knows when we will hit bottom.

Iván García

Photo: In the entryway of the Plaza Hotel, in the heart of the capital, a beggar uses a nylon bag containing her belongings as a “pillow.” To the side is an empty cigar box collecting coins from passersby. This image is part of The Black Beggars of Havana, a photo essay by Juan Antonio Madrazo published in Cubanet.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison