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Cuba: the Castros & Miami

Travelogue
by Stephen Kaye
Sat Jul 16th, 2016

While cruse ships are about to start an invasion of day-trippers into Havana, the US Congress nevertheless maintains its expression of legislative animosity towards the island’s government that reflects the 1990’s attitude of the American-Cuban population in Miami.  That was a population who lost property and position to the communist government of the Castro’s. The U.S. embargo of Cuba is that of a nation with which we are at war, but it is pointless.  We are not at war with Cuba. The embargo has had devastating effects on the life of the people.

Times have changed.  The American-Cuban population has aged, like the Castros themselves.  On the island of Cuba, a younger generation has a different attitude toward communism and state ownership.  That generation is slowly taking over the reins of power in Cuba, particularly through control of the military that has, since Raul Castro’s ascendency, become the most powerful institution in Cuba today.  Those facts are not evident to tourists.  One does not see military uniforms in the streets of Havana, any more than once sees military uniforms in New York or LA. 

Because communist bureaucracy became so stifling and inefficient, Raul has used his office to shift control of much of the economy from party to military ownership.  The large port development at Mariel is now in the hands of the military under Raul’s son-in-law.  He brought in Odebrecht, a Brazilian company (with 2015 revenues of US$45 Bn) that had been a partner in one of Cuba’s most important sugar mills. The military owns much of the tourist business, including hotels, buses and car rentals. 

While military control of the economy might seem ominous, those who have had dealings with it say the opposite.  They are encouraged that the shift to the military means a shift away from militant communists to a more practical and more politically popular institution.  James Bruno, writing in Politico, says Washington must build bridges to Cuba’s military because the military is the center of gravity in Cuba. He says FAR “is going to be our most reliable partner”.  Starwood was dealing with FAR when it was given management of one of the leading Havana hotels.   

The most recent news reports that the supply of Venezuelan oil is as shaky as the Venezuelan regime.  If it falters, so do Cuba’s oil supply and its limited homegrown food supply.  There is fear of dark nights and hot days without air conditioning.  There is also a food shortage.  The island’s exports  – nickel and sugar are way off; tourism is limited by the lack of facilities.  The airport itself is an embarrassing bottleneck of incompetence.  

Republicans have a long record of anti-Castro policies that are dictated by the Miami Cubans.  They would not give Castro an old shoe.  But it is not the Castro’s who are affected by too little food and fuel – it is the 11 million Cubans.  The Castro regime has been living on the credit of friendly regimes.  The once-friendly regimes are not so friendly any more; the credit of the Cuban government is near zero.   While the conditions are dire, they will not bring about a revolution; they certainly are not the stuff out of which a democracy will grow.  The legislation that prevents lifting the embargo (unless Cuba has a freely elected government according to U.S. standards) is unrealistic, and could seriously hamper an enlightened foreign policy that could take advantage of this moment of weakness.  Helping our neighbor in a time of distress might be the best policy.  But we may be blocked by the absurd restraint placed on our government by a Congress that represents the old Cuban expats.  

There are many opportunities for investment, but investors are discouraged.  The Cuban leaders rely on state control of the economy to maintain their power.  While Raul and his people seem to realize the old system must change, the path of change is not clear.  Under communism, politics and economics are bound together in state enterprises.  The role of profits, interest and dividends is not understood. Savings, capital, and individual initiative are not part of the language.  The memory of the plantation economy imposed by foreign – mostly American – investors is not a good one; Cubans do not want to go back to the days of oligarchy when the land and the businesses were owned by foreigners and a few rich Cubans.   

Diplomacy between the U.S. and Cuba has been plagued by politics. Since 2006 there have been discussions that might have progressed, but didn’t.  Obama’s visit in June was staged, strained and not altogether welcomed by the Castro regime. The U.S. policy has been to encourage political dissent rather than to work with the regime.  The U.S. has not learned to accept the Castro government as legitimate and to deal with it. Congress is still under the influence of the old-guard Miami Cubans represented by senators Rubio and Cruz, whose voices are heard in Cuba.  The embargo, never more than an expression of nastiness, lingers on.  Perhaps the death of Fidel, who is 90, is the event everyone is waiting for.