Now that the U.S. has re-established diplomatic relations with Pearl of the Antilles, interest in Cuba is rising. While there are no crystal balls about Cuba’s future, here are a few things we do know about the island-nation’s economy, thanks to Pew Research.
1. Cuba was doing business with the U.S. even before the embargo was lifted. A partial repeal of the embargo allowed for this, and Cuba really needed food, medical supplies and medicine.
2. Cuba’s economic growth has slowed dramatically in the past few years.
The CIA estimates that Cuba’s GDP grew just 1.3% last year in real (inflation-adjusted) terms – 177th out of 222 countries ranked. One big reason: With global oil prices still well below their pre-recession highs, the heavily discounted oil that Venezuela sends Cuba – some of which Cuba re-exports – is less valuable.
Remember when you bought that first thing – a car, maybe – with your own first income? Remember the feeling of pride it gave you? You’d scrubbed pots and pans in the diner kitchen all summer. Or maybe you were the “go-to” babysitter for everyone in your church. You earned that money, and you bought yourself something.
Now imagine living in a world where that could never happen. You are told by the government that they will care for your every need, no need to pay for anything. Everyone will get the same things, and all will be well. We call this place “Cuba,” and that system has not worked. (See also, Soviet Russia, Bay-area communes and Shakers.)
With the U.S. sanctions against the island nations now lifted, Cuba is beginning to see economic life again. The Communist government also recently changed laws about self-employment.
Joan Perez-Garcia has always had a job – the government guaranteed him one – but he’s never made much money. That is changing. (more…)
At RealClearReligion, Rev. Robert A. Sirico offers an analysis of President Obama’s move to thaw relations with Cuba, a diplomatic opening that was supported by the Vatican. Citing Pope Francis’ appeals for “an economy of inclusion,” Rev. Sirico asks: “What, indeed, could be more inclusive than trade and travel?” More:
Free trade is not the solution to all economic, social and political problems. Nor does anyone expect it to be. That said, on my visits to Cuba and China, I have yet to meet anyone who thought restricting trade or travel helped, all of which will have to be negotiated once relations are normalized. Mutatis mutandis, those unfortunate to have to live under oppressive regimes are among the first to long for U.S. companies to setting up shop in their countries, gain new markets for their own products and will increase contact and opportunity for themselves. To have more exchanges with Americans at every level, whether it is through tourism, educational, trade or technological exchange, is what many Cubans want.
The open question is to see whether the Castro regime — which, after all, remains ideologically Marxist and viciously persecutes anyone who steps out of line — will use this thawing as a way of moving Cuba away from 50 years of one party rule and a top-down approach to the economy, and towards wider freedoms. Their track-record, to date, would not inspire confidence.
Yesterday, President Obama announced that, “the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.” He instructed Secretary Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to reestablish diplomatic relations that have been severed since 1961. High-ranking officials will visit Cuba and the U.S. will reestablish an embassy in Havana. He also instructed Secretary Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.
The President also says the U.S. will take steps to increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba. Americans who travel to Cuba will be able to use American credit and debit cards on the island. U.S. financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts at Cuban financial institutions and exporters will be able to sell goods to the country.
Can the President do all that?
Sort of. The president controls the State Department, but the Congress controls the money. Senator Rubio (R-FL) has said that he’ll do everything he can to block funding for a Cuban embassy and prevent an ambassador from being selected.
The trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba also cannot be lifted without congressional approval. The executive branch has the authority under current law merely to issue licenses that permit US citizens and corporations to do business with Cuba, travel there, and send money to family members there.
The eyes of many in the world have turned to Cuba over the last day or so. A great deal has been made of the historic changes in the relationship between the US and Cuba and whether such changes fundamentally alter the situation of the political leaders and the elites in the island nation.
More interesting to me, however, are the personal stories of suffering and loss during the years of the Castro regime and the hope that dawns, however slight it may be, with the normalization of relations. Perhaps the changes will simply serve to prop up a tyrannical regime, but there is real possibility that the day-to-day existence for millions of people will improve with greater travel, access to markets, and communication.
One of the great tragedies of the Castro regime was its suppression of non-approved cultural artifacts and forms, including traditional Cuban music. The Buena Vista Social Club’s closure was representative of a larger tradition of cultural pluralism and civil society in Cuba that had no place in the communist regime.
The guitarist Ry Cooder visited Cuba in the 1990s, and was able to reunite many of the original members of the club. Cooder put together an international tour for these wonderful musicians, including a trip to Carnegie Hall in New York City. That created an album and later a documentary. Here’s a scene from the documentary where a couple of Cuban musicians are visiting New York City for the first time:
The audio cuts out a couple minutes in, but you can see the wonder and appreciation that is apparent in their reactions. They see immediately and instinctively that the vitality and vigor of the city, with its commerce, exchange, culture, and liberty, are a marked contrast to their experiences in Cuba. “Activity! Activity! Activity!” one of them celebrates.
“This is the life!” concludes the other. Let’s hope that increased liberalization of engagement between the US and Cuba can help unleash more of this kind of vibrant dynamism among a people that stand in so desperate need of it.
When Fidel Castro took over the island nation of Cuba, it officially become a nation of atheists. However, the Catholic community in Cuba continued to worship – privately, where necessary – and attempted to maintain existing churches. Castro’s regime would not allow the building of any new churches.
Now, there are plans to build a new church for the first time in fifty wars in Santiago, a city that suffered great damage from Hurricane Sandy two years ago. Santiago is home to one of Cuba’s great Catholic shrines, Our Lady of El Cobre, but the church there (riddled with termites and long-neglected) was destroyed in the hurricane.
There remains great poverty among many residents in the area, many of whom suffered great damage to their own homes from the hurricane. However, they want a church. (more…)
Michael J. Totten has a new piece on his travels through Cuba, this one focused on rural Cuba. “Most of the Cuban landscape I saw is already deforested,” he writes. “It’s just not being used. It’s tree-free and fallow ex-farmland. I’ve never seen anything like it, though parts of the Soviet Union may have looked similar.”
Economists refer to this sort of thing as “the tragedy of the commons,” and nobody does it well as the communists.
Police officers pull over cars and search the trunk for meat, lobsters, and shrimp. They also search passenger bags on city busses in Havana. Dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote about it sarcastically in her book, Havana Real. “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.”
If they find a side of beef in the trunk, so I’m told, you’ll go to prison for five years if you tell the police where you got it and ten years if you don’t.
No one is allowed to have lobsters in Cuba. You can’t buy them in stores, and they sure as hell aren’t available on anyone’s ration card. They’re strictly reserved for tourist restaurants owned by the state. Kids will sometimes pull them out of the ocean and sell them on the black market, but I was warned in no uncertain terms not to buy one. I stayed in hotels and couldn’t cook my own food anyway. And what was I supposed to do, stash a live lobster in my backpack?
I find the new investigative essay by journalist Michael J. Totten about Havana before and under communism poignant and beautiful, a must-read for anyone interested in Cuba, communism and the universal hunger for liberty. The long essay is worth every word, but I’ve excerpted a few of the most arresting passages here:
The rotting surfaces of some of the buildings [in the tourist district] have been restored, but those changes are strictly cosmetic. Look around. There’s still nothing to buy. You’ll find a few nice restaurants and bars here and there, but they’re owned by the state and only foreigners go there. The locals can’t afford to eat or drink out because the state caps their salaries at twenty dollars a month. Restored Old Havana looks and feels no more real than the Las Vegas version of Venice….
Yet the bones of Cuba’s capital are unmatched in our hemisphere. “The Cubans of successive centuries created a harmonious architectural whole almost without equal in the world,” [Theodore] Dalrymple wrote. (more…)
In 1956, Fidel Castro, along with Che Guevara, led a guerrilla war on the island nation of Cuba. By 1959, Castro was sworn in as prime minister, and began leading the country down the destructive path of Communistic ideation. (Due to his poor health, Castro has now turned over the reins of the government to his brother Raul.)
Under Castro, religious organizations, churches and schools have been all but decimated. He took control of student organizations and professional groups. Private property was confiscated, including businesses, farms, and factories. Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned as political prisoners.
Yet now, it appears that Cuba is beginning to emerge from the shadows of the Communist regime. According to the New York Times, Cubans are beginning to experience entrepreneurship and the financial rewards that come with that. (more…)
Professional baseball player. Starting catcher for the Detroit Tigers. Starting catcher in the 2011 All-Star Game. At only 25, Alex Avila has already created a terrific career. Yet, he is very mindful of what might have been.
In a recent interview, Avila notes that his Cuban roots could have led to a very different life for him and his family:
Both of my grandfathers actually fled from Cuba during the Communist Revolution in the 1950s, so it’s not surprising that they share in Tommy’s [Lasorda, former manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers] conservative political outlook. When your own government won’t allow you to participate in the most basic freedoms — freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom to own private property — then you want to come to a country where such things are allowed. We take those freedoms for granted, but they aren’t automatic anywhere, even here, unless we work to preserve them.
If my grandfathers hadn’t escaped from Cuba, they may not have survived, and the same is true with my parents, who were very young at the time.
Avila also credits his family’s strong Catholic faith and his father’s gentle support for his success.
Lord Acton said, “…at all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare…” It appears that Avila is one of those sincere friends.