What’s Going on in Cuba?
As late as last year, Bush administration officials were saying that the U.S. had no idea what was going on in Cuba, asserting that it was an "opaque" society.
Still, the U.S. has the equivalent of an embassy in Havana, and contacts with all of the dissidents publicized abroad, as well as the benefit of electronic intercepts, satellite imagery and other intelligence. Most Western news agencies maintain correspondents in Havana and publish regular reports as well as interviews with the man or woman on the street. Cuba now has a number of Web sites that reflect official views and current events, including criticisms of the government. It is not impossible to form an idea of the conditions and trends in Cuba today, as well as of external circumstances.
The implosion of the USSR in 1991 meant for Cuba a cessation of oil imports and the loss of a preferred market. The economy nosedived, with GDP dropping 35% almost overnight. By 1994, and in part as a result of the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act (the "Torricelli law"), the situation for Cubans was desperate.
As the economy began to recover in the following year, two things happened at about the same time: Congress passed the 1996 Helms-Burton law, further tightening the screws on the Cuban economy, and Cuba saw the start of a record drought that would last for ten years, ending only with the hurricanes of 2004 and 2005.
The Special Period, and the drought, dragged on. In 2004, the electrical grid collapsed due to the lack of maintenance and of spare parts. Life became very difficult once again, especially as the Bush rules of that year cut off many family contacts and limited the remaining ones. Already, however, Hugo Chavez had been elected president in Venezuela, and Cuba could again count on a regular supply of oil.
By 2006 the electrical grid had been reconstituted. The drought ended and reservoirs were full again. The economy was growing, more than in most countries of Latin America. Popular expectations cautiously rose.
Things had changed in the world, too, and continued to change. Having formed strategic alliances with China as well as Venezuela, Cuba began to import Chinese locomotives, buses, trucks, household appliances, and other badly-needed goods. Cuba took over the presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement for a period of three years. The Venezuelan-Cuban trade block, ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas), which had started with only those two countries as a counterpart to the US-sponsored FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas, ALCA in Spanish) added Bolivia and, soon after, Nicaragua. (This year, a Caribbean island nation, Dominica, joined the group.) Ecuador elected a socialist president, and Brazil and Argentina kept left-of-center governments in new elections. Daniel Ortega returned to the presidency of Nicaragua.
Cuba developed positive relations with the U.S.’s close ally, Colombia, and now Mexico is reestablishing its former close relations with Cuba. Recently, the presidents of former opponents Honduras and Guatemala visited Cuba bringing warm words of praise for Cuban assistance and proposals for closer ties.
In brief, Cuba’s economy began to emerge from the Special Period. Many inefficiencies and bad habits from that era remain, however, and, as Acting President, Raul Castro last year called for a thorough discussion of these with an eye to initiating reforms. Some minor reforms have already been put into place, but broader reforms can be expected now that Fidel Castro has resigned his position and called for a new generation to take over.
At the United Nations, a ceremony takes place every year at which the General Assembly votes overwhelmingly to end the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Last year, the assembly voted 184 to 4 with 1 abstention against the US. The four votes in favor of the US position were, as usual, the US and Israel, and, this time, Palau and Marshall Islands, whose foreign relations by law are conducted by the US.
What had a chance to work in the 1990s, when the Cuban system was at its lowest point ever and neo-liberalism ruled Latin America, no longer looks like a good bet. Cuba is in the position to continue its project especially if reforms bring some material prosperity and comfort to the population. Right now the government is focussing resources and management efforts on key areas including food, housing and transportation,.
Both Cuba and the U.S. want the hostilities to be over, but each on its own terms. The Cuban side promises a new Cuban economic model, but still socialist even if reformed. The U.S. side continues to pursue an induced economic collapse and essentially a surrender by Cuba, neither of which is in the offing.
It looks like the standoff will continue.