Cuba: between US indifference and EU disapproval

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Cuba has adopted drastic economic, political and social control measures in an 11th hour attempt to stem the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on a country already severely weakened by the tightening of the US blockade. The Biden administration’s apparent lack of interest in changing his predecessor Donald Trump’s hardline policy towards the island and the European Union’s increasingly critical position on human rights violations in Cuba have added new hurdles in the post-Castro government’s race to find a lifeline to help overcome the very serious challenges it is faced with on the domestic front.

Meanwhile, the people of Cuba are doing their best to survive in the midst of the shortages, the unrelenting virus and the lack of democratic assurances for the future, whilst turning to social media as an increasingly effective way to express their discontent, inside and outside the country. The latest economic measures adopted by the government of President Miguel Díaz-Canel, ranging from currency unification at the beginning of the year to the decision, in June, to temporarily suspend cash deposits in US dollars in the Cuban banking system, have only served to increase the level of uncertainty and discontent.

“Look at this queue. Have you seen how many people there are? Half of them are probably planning to resell whatever they can get hold of in there, which won’t be very much. But it’s what keeps them from starving,” explains 48-yer-old Yuneidis who lives in the Playa municipality in the west of Havana. The line of about 100 people seems calm and very disciplined when it comes to ensuring the queuing system is respected, but the worry is visible on the faces of those who have been waiting for three or four hours to get hold of some sausages, mincemeat, a bottle of oil or basic hygiene products in La Puntilla shopping centre. It does not look like those waiting to buy any of the overpriced food or drink products offered there are going to make a fortune when they resell them in some town or village further inland on the island, where the shortages are even worse.

Yuneidis insists that there will be no medicines in the shop. Havana’s shops and most of its pharmacies have been out of the most basic medicines for months.

“People are only able to rely on relatives who can get medication to them from abroad,” she adds, explaining that medicines have “vanished” from the pharmacies and those able to get hold of them from abroad often use them as barter for other basic necessities. This type of trade has been facilitated by the increased access to social media platforms such as WhatsApp, which have enabled the creation of new networks for supplying, buying and exchanging what little there is.

The shortages, growing by the day, are doing nothing to slow the daily rate of Covid-19 infections, stimulated by the proliferation of endless queues in which thousands of Cubans wait for hours to make limited purchases. The pandemic has cut off Cuba’s main source of income in the form of the hard currency brought in by foreign visitors, which had also driven the growth in the cuentapropista or self-employed businesses making a relatively decent living from providing them with accommodation, food and leisure services.

Although the coronavirus brought tourism to a screeching halt, it had already been hard hit by the draconian measures taken by the Trump administration in recent years to toughen the restrictions on travel from the United States. Following the thaw under Barack Obama, US visitors to the island seemed like a golden goose for cities such as Havana, Santiago and Trinidad, as well as resorts like Varadero or Cuba’s many cays and small archipelagos. But along came Trump and the apparently bright and prosperous future vanished like a mirage. He restored and reinforced many of the harshest measures of the embargo placed on Cuba by the United States in 1962, and just ten days before leaving office he put the island back on the list of “state sponsors of terrorism”, dealing a final blow to diplomacy and Cuba’s battered foreign trade.

Cuba policy is not a priority

All hopes were then pinned on Biden, the Democrat who made Trump bite the dust in the 2020 US elections. But half a year after Joe Biden took office, none of the more than 200 measures taken by Trump to tighten the embargo on Cuba have been repealed or amended. Raúl Castro, the former number one of the Cuban regime, in public and in the shadows, following the death of his brother in November 2016, retired in April 2021 as head of the all-powerful Cuban Communist Party at a time when the enmity with the United States was more entrenched and acute than during the final years of Fidel Castro. At the Eighth Communist Party Congress, Raúl Castro, aged 89, handed over leadership of the PCC’s Political Bureau to Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who inherited the difficult task of convincing impoverished Cubans that the Revolution that triumphed in 1959 was still the way forward in the 21st century and in the midst of the disasters not only affecting the country’s financial, energy, food and social systems but also its health.

In an article published by the digital daily 14ymedio under the headline “Castro goes, Castroism remains”, dissident Cuban journalist Yoani Sánchez underlines that “Castroism is more than a man and his clan. It is a way of managing politics, controlling the media, managing the economy through the military, determining the curricula to be followed in the education sector, a way of conducting international relations and structuring ideological propaganda.” The outcomes, according to Sánchez, of this way of understanding the world has been “voluntarism, inefficiency and intolerance”.

Biden’s stance on Cuba, in sharp contrast with the fierce opposition he has shown towards the measures taken by his predecessor on the domestic front, has hit Díaz-Canel’s survival policy like a bucket of cold water.

It has also dashed the Cuban people’s hopes for an improvement in living standards whilst the impact of the pandemic on the already dire economic situation is raising the spectre of the abysmal ‘Special Period’, the years of scarcity and hunger that, in the early 1990s, followed the withdrawal of Soviet aid, which had been the country’s real driving force for decades. In these times of pandemic, with aid from Venezuela reduced to a minimum, without the ability to resell the oil being received from Caracas until not so long ago and choked by the ruthless consequences of the US embargo, Biden’s arrival at the White House was a glimmer of hope that has faded into the mists of the Caribbean.

“Biden will follow Trump’s hardline policy,” international affairs analyst Alberto García Marrder told Equal Times. The Miami-based journalist is in no doubt that, for now, the focus of the new resident of the White House is not on Latin America, not least Cuba, or even Venezuela. “The issue of Cuba is not a priority for Biden. Only China is,” he explains. And China has now ceased to see Cuba as a prime platform for reaching the rest of Mesoamerica, as suggested by the numerous trade contacts made in the first half of the last decade. Over time, pragmatic Chinese businessmen and officials have been driven away from the island’s main economic sectors by problems with payments and the lack of legal safeguards for Chinese investors.

According to academic William M. LeoGrande: “Biden administration officials have confirmed that they will keep Biden’s campaign promises regarding remittances (sent by Cuban Americans from the United States) and travel to Cuba. But they do not seem to be in any hurry to conduct a review of current policies.” As this professor of government and former dean of the American University School of Public Affairs in Washington went on to tell Equal Times: “The deteriorating humanitarian situation on the island should spur Biden’s people to act sooner rather than later, but they are undoubtedly more concerned about domestic policy” for now.

LeoGrande explained that Biden cannot afford to alienate Senator Robert Menéndez, who is very wary about negotiating with the Cuban authorities. “As chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he has the power to delay the appointment of Biden’s nominees for ambassadorial and senior State Department posts, and the new Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs has not yet been confirmed,” added the Latin America expert. Biden is also banking on reaching bipartisan consensus, which could be undermined by a rapprochement with Cuba. His administration cannot afford to unleash the wrath of other anti-Castroist senators such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rick Scott.

As LeoGrande recalls, in the 1990s, with the Cuban economy in tatters following the withdrawal of Soviet aid, the Clinton administration recognised that the greatest threat posed by Cuba was a collapse of the regime.

He explains that this would have led to uncontrolled migration, violence and the emergence of a potential foothold for transnational crime. Regarding the situation now, although he does not believe the Cuban regime is on the verge of collapse, migration pressures are increasing, as manifested by the growing number of balseros – people trying to reach the US on makeshift rafts. To avoid a worsening of the situation, LeoGrande argues that, to stem the crisis, Biden need not restore Obama’s policy but simply restore the flow of remittances, allowing Cuban Americans to help their relatives.

For Ted Henken, a professor of sociology at New York City’s Baruch College, where he also holds a joint appointment in the Department of Black and Latino Studies, it does not look like there will be a major change in US policy towards Cuba. It is not a priority for three reasons, he predicts. Firstly, “there are many more pressing domestic and international policies and, secondly, the Cuban government itself – now under Miguel Díaz-Canel – has made it difficult for Biden to make policy changes in the short to medium term given the sharp increase in the repression of artists, intellectuals, civil society activists and independent journalists”. As Henken points out, “it would be very difficult for Biden to justify another thaw in this context”. Finally, he argues, “It is unusual for a US president, especially a Democrat, to change policies towards Cuba in the first half of a presidential term given the importance of Florida in national elections.”

Human rights in the spotlight

The recent hardening of the repression against various members of Cuban civil society has unleashed international criticism of the Díaz-Canel government. The ruthless approach taken by the authorities in recent months has largely been focused on certain groups, such as the San Isidro Movement (MSI), formed in 2018, mainly by artists, intellectuals and independent journalists, which has been denouncing the repressive measures, bringing its actions closer to a form of political activism that the island’s authorities are clearly not willing to tolerate.

Dozens of its members have been detained and harassed by Cuban security forces and intelligence services, and long hunger strikes have been staged by some of its leading members, such as Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, whose eight-day hunger strike was halted by the authorities. The artist was then isolated for nearly a month in a Havana hospital with little if any communication. He was finally “medically discharged” at the end of May.

Otero Alcántara was one of the examples given in the resolution passed by the European Parliament (EP) on 10 June to denounce the current human rights situation in Cuba.

The very tough resolution, which the Cuban authorities described as “spurious and interventionist” and a display of “double standards” by the European Union, denounces “the current attacks against artists from the San Isidro Movement, peaceful dissidents, independent journalists, human rights defenders and members of the political opposition”. The resolution goes further and “strongly condemns the existence of political prisoners, the persistent and permanent political persecution, acts of harassment and arbitrary detentions of dissidents in Cuba”.

The text also criticises the Cuban communist regime for failing to comply with the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement (PDCA) signed between the European Union and Cuba in 2016. It urges the Cuban government to “align its human rights policy with international standards”, as defined in the texts to which Cuba is a signatory, and calls on it to “allow civil society and political opposition to actively participate in political and social life with no restrictions”, as well as to “recognise independent journalism as a legitimate practice and to respect the rights of independent journalists in Cuba”.

Health professionals are also included in the resolution: the EP condemns “the systemic labour and human rights violations committed by the Cuban state against its healthcare personnel assigned to work abroad on medical missions”, in breach of core ILO conventions ratified by Cuba.

The resolution represents a blow to the Cuban authorities at one of the most difficult moments the island has experienced since the triumph of the Revolution. As independent Cuban journalist Luz Escobar told Equal Times: “It is good and positive that what is happening in Cuba is condemned in arenas like the European Parliament,” as the Cuban issue has long been avoided whilst the national and international complaints coming out of Europe have been focused on repression in countries such as Nicaragua and Venezuela. The EP resolution gives “visibility” to “the problem of political prisoners in Cuba”, beyond any denunciations made on social media on the island itself, she explains.

For Fernando Ravsberg, a journalist of Uruguayan origin who has lived in Cuba for three decades, the situation is very complex. He explains that the EP resolution “went virtually unnoticed by the vast majority of Cubans, whose attention is currently turned towards other matters. The most pressing issue is the resurgence of the pandemic, with infection rates reaching the highest level seen since its onset whilst the most controversial is the decision to halt the domestic circulation of the US dollar in cash”.

The European Parliament’s condemnation, Ravsberg adds “had a discursive impact solely among members of the Cuban government and parliament, as well as among the dissidents who have been pushing for it for months”. In his view the resolution “is not likely to have much effect on relations between Brussels and Havana”, recalling, by way of example that “almost at the same time that the condemnation was being voted on, Cuba was granted a postponement of its debt payment to the Paris Club”.



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