Iván García, Havana, 21 June 2021 — On July 4, 2016, in the splendid residence of the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Cuba located west of Havana, there was a celebration of that country’s Independence Day. Hundreds of guests nibbled on hors d’oeuvres, sipped red wine or cold beer, and chatted on sundry topics in small groups. Following the re-establishment of relations between the U.S. and Cuba on December 17, 2014, the harmony between the two peoples was noticeable.
At the long tables dressed in white tablecloths and under the canopies set up in the gardens, you could see renowned artists, business executives, prelates of the Catholic Church, as well as activists, opponents, and independent journalists. A blues soundtrack could be heard in the background while I conversed with a Spanish businessman based in Florida, who told me how the huge state bureaucracy was preventing him from opening a ferry line between Havana and Miami.
That July 4th, I remembered that in November of 2015, Saul Berenthal and Horace Clemmons — of the Alabama-based tractor manufacturer Cleber LLC — had made the news when they wanted to install a small tractor assembly plant in the Mariel Special Development Zone, which would have been a beneficial business for the unproductive agriculture of Cuba, especially for private farmers and agricultural cooperatives. Berenthal and Clemmons intended to sell the tractors in national currency. It seemed that the Cuban authorities were going to approve the deal, as it was profitable for both parties. By then, the Sheraton hotel chain had opened a property in Miramar in partnership with the military-run company Gaviota.
Day in and day out, famous Americans would visit Havana and roam the city in antique convertibles. Travelers from the United States were amazed to see no advertising in the capital city, to have no internet connection, and they lamented the deterioration of buildings that were architectural jewels. On the streets of Havana, Barack Obama was more popular than Fidel and Raúl Castro. From balconies, bicitaxis and collective taxis, you could see the American flag waving next to the Cuban. Paladares (private restaurants) and private lodgings were bursting. At Sloppys Joe’s — a bar located next to the Hotel Sevilla that before 1959 was frequented by the actor Errol Flynn — between mojitos and “ropa vieja” (shredded beef) sandwiches, a bartender told me that on a bad day, he would earn 150 dollars in tips thanks to American tourists.
During that honeymoon period — when many Cubans naively believed that in ten years, skyscrapers would once again grace the Havana skyline and Starbucks and McDonald’s franchises would be seen everywhere — I would have assumed that the Spanish businessman from Florida was optimistic. But the Cuban government had applied the brakes. The official press and functionaries of the dictatorship were accusing Obama of not doing enough to dismantle the embargo. And the amanuenses were issuing warnings about the cultural “danger” inherent in thousands of American tourists being on the Island.
That afternoon in 2016, I was unaware that the Castro brothers’ order was to return to the Cold War trench. The Spanish businessman warned me: “They are not interested in businesses that benefit the people. All business has to be with military companies, and they must make good profits. I told a senior government official about my project to open a ferry service, which would lower travel costs. In addition, Cubans living in Florida could bring 300 pounds of luggage, and even cars. The official told me privately that this was not in the government’s interest, as it would affect the military companies that run the foreign exchange stores. And he confessed to me that the business they were interested in was cruise ships.”
Obama approved at least three packages of measures that favored the private sector in Cuba. When you chat confidentially with Cuban private entrepreneurs, they recognize that the internal blockade, the government’s distrust, and excessive taxes and controls affect them more than the U.S. embargo. Two business owners who were at the meeting with Obama said that “if the government wants it, we can import food, raw materials, and other items from the United States.”
One of them told me that they “imported cuts of beef from Canada. But when the authorities found out, they banned it. There is no manifest will for private businesses to flourish. All that support for entrepreneurs expressed by the rulers is what they say publicly. But the reality is different. They drown you with absurd taxes, excessive controls, and a lot of corruption. They force you to cheat and commit illegalities in order to be profitable.”
It was the regime that never approved, nor cared, that the measures passed by the Obama administration would strengthen the private sector. The dictatorship and its military companies were never interested in opening businesses that would benefit the families of émigrés by authorizing them to bring hundreds of pounds on their ferry trips. It is the Cuban government that charges excessive sums of money for the shipments sent from abroad by émigrés. A box weighing five kilograms mailed to Cuba requires the recipient to pay about two thousand pesos to receive it. It is a way of discouraging imports to poor relatives on the Island.
The Cuban government is lying when its officials try to sell the story that “it is the U.S. blockade that affects the Cuban family.” The regime has never cared about the Cubans who leave, except whether they support the system and do not publicly express their differences with it.
In the spring of 2015, I covered the exodus of Cubans to Central America together with Celeste Matos, a formidable reporter based in Florida. We traveled from one end of Costa Rica to the other, from Paso Canoas, on the border with Panama, to Peñas Blancas, bordering Nicaragua. Dozens of Cubans told me that the Cuban Embassy in San José never gave them any help or legal advice. Cuban émigrés are only useful to the regime as ATMs.
Never has the autocracy apologized for the verbal abuses and lynchings to which they subjected Cubans who wanted to emigrate. According to a former Interior Ministry official, in 1980, Fidel Castro ordered the delivery of only two thousand food rations during the occupation by more than ten thousand Cubans of the Peruvian Embassy. “He did it on purpose, to create riots, fights, and present them to the world as a savage scum.” A few days later, Castro released hundreds of dangerous and mentally ill criminals to contaminate the exodus that was leaving through the Port of Mariel.
The regime charges Cuban émigrés very high prices for their passports and permits to visit their homeland. Emigrés have absolutely no political rights. They cannot vote or be elected to public office. This new measure to suspend the use of the dollar is another act of arrogance against expatriates and their relatives in Cuba. The authorities, because of the economic madhouse, mismanagement, and the unproductive state sector — a kind of sit-down strike by the workers due to their insufficient wages — cannot offer a decent life or efficient public services to the population.
There are several ways to dismantle the embargo. The measures approved by Obama are still in force, so if the State were to allow the private sector to import food and goods from the U.S., to later sell them in their businesses, this would alleviate the fierce shortages.
The government itself can buy food from the U.S., as long as it pays in cash. If, as the Central Bank of Cuba officials say, they had their vaults full of dollars, they could buy tons of beef, fish and sausages in addition to the usual frozen chicken. If the regime is unable to guarantee the supply and production of food, why does it not allow foreign chains to import and sell food in Cuba?
The dictatorship only issues measures that allow them to stay in power. They detest private business. They have prohibited Cubans from accumulating wealth. They speak of authorizing investments by Cubans who reside abroad, but they delay approval, because it is a contradiction for their ideological adversaries to return to Cuba as successful entrepreneurs. Each new unpopular measure decreed by the government headed by Miguel Díaz-Canel digs its own grave deeper. Authoritarian systems doing things half-assed crumble on their own. Cuba is not going to be the exception.
Translated By: Alicia Barraqué Ellison