The Caribbean’s defiant, communist island is returning to precarious times. Venezuela’s significant economic support, manifest through massive petroleum subsidies, has been dramatically reduced, as the Venezuelan economy descends into violent failure.
The election of Donald Trump, has also chilled the recent thaw between Cuba and the USA.
Internally, the passing of Fidel shifted the limelight onto his younger brother, Raul. But Raul is also elderly – one of the few remaining from the revolution – and he only plans to rule for another year.
The gradually expanding – and opening – economy has shrunk by 1% and according to some polls, fully half of the island’s population would choose to leave.
This is the reality of modern Cuba and I remain firmly in the middle of the many opinions regarding this historic island.
I really have heard most sides of the Cuban debates and honestly, each has some merit. As I have previously written, when comparing other small, post-colonial / post-slave societies in the Americas, Cuba has accomplished far more in terms of health, education and equality (see Haiti).
It has also stifled human rights, economic development, and most forms of honest political debate. Tens of thousands of Cubans have escaped their island.
The promise of naturalization in the United States indisputably contributed to this exodus. The Obama government ended the longstanding ‘wet feet / dry feet’ (fast-tracked residency if a Cuban reaches the US), and this should stem some of the flow out of Cuba.
I support this change entirely. Far too many Cubans have died trying to cross to Florida. Many more have been abused travelling overland through the Americas after flying to Ecuador (the only country that did not require a visa). This is their story in Panama.
If these thousands of brave emigrants remain on the island, they may participate more fully in the internal political debate. But one cannot blame them for trying to leave.
And now to tourism. This really is one of the ways to help. I do tire of Europeans and Canadians who complain about Americans finally visiting Cuba, but aside from this jingoistic sense of touristic propriety, Americans enjoying one of their closest neighbours is a natural way to better the life of average Cubans.
The new (and excellent) restaurants that have sprung up around Havana are a direct result of tourism spending. Although I find Cuba unreasonably expensive (outside of the all-inclusive package resorts). This too is as much as result of the closed economic environment as the significant pent-up desire to visit.
Doing business in Cuba is very difficult and communist Cubans can be very, very money driven, but this is all understandable.
Cuba faces two big concerns at the moment – internal and external. Reversing the recent progress in US-Cuban relations could be devastating to the precarious Cuban economy. Nationals have borrowed heavily from friends and family in order to renovate everything from buildings to cars.
Havana is genuinely emerging from the ashes of neglect and poverty. Its famous architecture is gradually recovering, but any backtracking from the recent openness will be disastrous.
Internally the threat may be even more acute. If the old guard feels threatened, it may close in upon itself. This is never good and could prove devastating to the the Cuban people.
Cuba could take a positive step into the future by floating its currency, holding real elections and modelling its economy after progressive success stories such as Sweden or Costa Rica.
Should Cuba not descend back into a lifeless, yet long-lived world of isolation, it will be interesting to watch.
Some tourists visit for the pristine waters and free-flowing rum at the resort, whereas others travel there to see a place frozen in time. The resorts wont change, but the streets will.
I wish the very best for Cuba and hope this last vestige of the cold war may prove a beacon for future peace and success, particularly in a world which seems to be retreating into tribalism and instability.