Cuba Can Overcome Internal Problems Without External Intervention – OpEd


The Cuban government allowed the inhabitants of the island to open small and medium-sized private business with up to 100 employees. This happened in the wake of the massive protests which took place in July in Havana and a number of major cities due to the deterioration of living conditions, including in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The State Council has approved a decree-law on micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, which facilitates their coherent insertion in the legal system as an actor that affects the productive transformation of the country,” says a note on the website of the National Assembly of People’s Power of Cuba.

Meanwhile, President President Miguel Diaz-Canel said Cuba was taking firm steps to update its economic model.

Earlier, travellers were allowed arriving in the country to bring in food, medicine and other essentials without paying import duties.

According to official information, many government supporters who took to the streets during the days of the protests to prevent provocations were injured in clashes with protesters. The Cuban authorities blamed the United States for organizing the riots.

Analyzing the situation in the country, David Jessop, the director and founder of the Cuba Initiative, Non-Executive Director of the Caribbean Council and Cuba Briefing Editor, said the protests were largely spontaneous.

“The unrest, news of which was widely spread on social media within Cuba, was a response to growing concerns about food shortages, severe power outages, the growing incidence of COVID 19, and the deteriorating ability of Cuba’s health care system to cope with rising infection rates in some provinces, all of which to a significant extent have been exacerbated by the tightening of the US embargo. These then morphed in some locations to protests against the government,” the expert reminded.

In his opinion, the Government response was initially confrontational possibly because some in the Communist Party feared that a US soft war that the leadership says it has been facing was becoming among some a US inspired direct challenge to its power.

“Cuba’s President subsequently sought to lower the tension by recognising the legitimacy of many of the concerns expressed including by ‘revolutionary people’. Since then he has moved to indicate to others in the leadership that it will be necessary to increase the space for debate in Cuban society, and to address issues with a wider group of participants,” David Jessop said.

From his point of view, this reflects in part the danger the early confrontations on the street posed to the Cuban military concept of a ‘war of all the people’ as this doctrine is felt to be the only way to repulse the US attempt at an invasion if it happens.

“Government has been undergoing generational change and implementing major economic reforms that decentralise and theoretically de-bureaucratise state decision making and encourage non-state economic development. There are divisions between conservatives and liberal reformers about the pace of and nature of such change. In my view the current tension s surrounding economic delivery and future growth and the concerns of many Cubans could be overcome if it were to liberalise and create a social market economy that emulated many of the reforms undertaken in Vietnam,” the expert said.

At the same time, according to him, only the Cuban people can decide on their own future.

“It is not up to The US, the EU Russia or anyone else to determine. The US Embargo has failed but has become a function of US domestic politics, making it harder to unravel and in the process harming the ability of the Cuban people to have a better life,” David Jessop added.

Laurence Whitehead, Senior Research Fellow at Nuffield College, Oxford, believes that the unrest in Cuba was “spontaneous, and a non-violent expression of social despair.”

“But there is also a broader setting. The ‘revolutionary regime’ leadership is trying to pass power to a next generation, but this rising cohort lacks the self-confidence and prestige of the founders. Hopes for a more inclusive future were stirred by Barack Obama, and by the spread of the internet, and some mild economic relaxations, then dashed by Donald Trump, COVID-19, and the collapse of tourism. The long overdue currency unification was launched under duress on Jan 1st – the worst possible timing – and has only produced inflation and empty shelves so far. Fundamentally the regime failed to promote food self-security and now lacks the means to import basic food supplies either,” Laurence Whitehead noted.

In his opinion, the US sanctions and international solidarity, including from Russia, help governmental cohesion.

“The immediate crisis seems to have passed without spinning out of control, and to my mind the authorities have exercised suitable restraint – but this is controversial with the western press screaming ‘repression.’ […] On the issue of economic scarcity it is bending to some obvious and easy but necessary and overdue concessions. But that does not restore the prestige of the regime, or compensate for the damage done. Major further reforms are essential, but extremely difficult without splitting the elite. So the danger persists of renewed and perhaps more confrontational outbursts. It remains to be seen how Havana is processing all this,” the expert said.

Commenting on inadmissibility of the intervention of external forces in solving problems in Cuba, he stressed that the question of how it is governed must be decided by the islanders.

“[…] The question at issue in Cuba is whether the US government has the right to asymmetrical intervention that it has repeatedly exercised since the invasion of 1898. The UN votes every year by about 191 to 2 (US and Israel) that such ‘plattism’ is not permissible. […] Biden knows it is not, and that there is no prospect of containing the damage if they invade again like in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.,” Laurence Whitehead explained.

“The question of how Cuba is governed must be decided basically by the islanders. My observation in 2019 is that the referendum on the current constitution did have substantial (if grudging) support. It would have to be the basis for further political innovations that are going to be essential in coming years. The protesters want ‘Patria y Vida’ rather than ‘Patria o Muerte.’ That is a powerful, but essentially reformist and national platform. Fulminating against supposed ‘totalitarianism’ is no help to the Cuban people. They need international solidarity to guide the country out of its current impasse,” he added.

In turn, Mark Jones, Professor of Political Science at Rice University, expert in Latin American Studies, shared the opinion that the situation in Cuba is increasingly problematic for the Cuban government.

“The economic downturn associated with the COVID-19 pandemic combined with the reduction in low-cost/free oil shipments from Venezuela have added almost unbearable stress to an economic system that was already broken and in dire straits,” the expert said.

“Cuban citizens have finally reacted to the Communist government’s myriad failures: a moribund economy that cannot provide for Cubans’ basic needs, a health care system that cannot protect them from COVID-19, and a repressive police state that denies Cubans even the most basic civil liberties,” he said.

Meanwhile, in his opinion, the Cuban government should be able to effectively repress these protests.

“First, as an island, it is easier for the government to prevent both access to the broader world. Second, the Cuban security apparatus is formidable and also realizes quite clearly, that if the current government falls, they and their families will lose all of their economic and social privileges and quite possibly be jailed for human rights violations,” Mark Jones explained.

Analyzing the likelihood of outside interference, he suggested that the Joe Biden administration will not go the next step of trying to overthrow the Cuban government, beyond the punitive measures such as the embargo that are already in effect.

“There are multiple reasons for this. First, intervention into another country’s internal affairs is opposed by most Democrats and many Republicans. Second, within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party there are many Democratic elites who are historic supporters of the Cuban Revolution and Cuban government, and any intervention would alienate them. Third, the last thing the Biden Administration wants is a breakdown of the current Cuban Government and the country descending into anarchy, which would possibly result in a million or more Cuban refugees arriving in Florida,” Mark Jones said.

Emily Morris, Research Fellow at University College London’s Institute of the Americas (UCLIA), drew attention to the fact that even before COVID-19 the country was suffering from the tightening of US sanctions during the presidency of Donald Trump.

“When the pandemic began, multilateral official financing institutions, led by the IMF, moved quickly to provide emergency financing facilities for countries that needed foreign exchange and fiscal support to enable them to respond to the health emergency. They knew that if they did not, there would be huge suffering and likely political upheaval. But because of US sanctions, Cuba […] has had no access to official international emergency financing. Moreover, just before leaving office in January 2021, the Trump administration introduced their most devastating measure in terms of its effect on the Cuban economy: by re-listing Cuba on the US Treasury department’s list of ‘state sponsors of terrorism’ without any plausible justification. […] This makes it extremely difficult for any Cuban entities to simply process payments for international trade, as well as finance. So Cuba not only had no access to official external financial support, but faced the pandemic amidst a sharp reduction in access to any form of international finance. No other country has experienced this,” the expert said.

“On top of all this, the Cuban government introduced a major economic reform in January 2021: currency unification. This is an important and necessary reform, but it was inevitably going to cause some economic disruption – with businesses earning foreign exchange becoming more profitable, while those with high import components becoming uneconomic – and inflation. In the context of shortages resulting from COVID-19 and US sanctions, inflation has been stronger than it would otherwise has been, creating considerable alarm among Cubans,” Emily Morris added.

According to her, the protests were certainly encouraged by the efforts of US-based organisations to stir unrest, but they also reflected real frustrations of the citizens.

“The government’s attempts to cap prices and ration distribution of increasingly scarce basic goods stimulated growing black markets and queues. With foreign exchange limited, many goods disappeared from shelves […] and were only available in hard currency stores. So politically, there was a general atmosphere of rising frustration,” the expert noted.

In her opinion, the current Cuban government is committed to economic reform, and has been moving towards greater openness and inclusion.

“It has also been remarkably competent in terms of ensuring that basic health and nutrition needs of the most vulnerable are met during this severe economic crisis, and very willing to respond to complaints and difficulties. But the reforms have been a slow process, and the messaging has been clumsy, especially in terms of reaching the young and unengaged population. President Diaz-Canel’s insistence on ‘continuity’ works for the older generation and loyal followers, and indeed may be necessary for ensuring that planned reforms have their consent, but is unattractive to this new generation. AS well as being frustrated by the loss of opportunities and dismal economic situation, they are bored with hearing the government blame problems on the ‘US blockade’ – even though US sanctions are more to blame than before – and fed up with the bureaucracy and controls,” Emily Morris said.

From her point of view, intervention, directly or indirectly, can only make the situation worse.

“The situation should be resolved in Cuba and by its people only. Indirect intervention, whether the radio or TV broadcasts, propaganda disseminated through internet, or covert support for dissidents, is entirely counter-productive in terms of its effect on the internal debate. There is a vibrant exchange of opinions within Cuba, which has the capacity to bring new thinking and concrete reforms, and a process of reform towards a more open society and economy is under way. In the short period of the Obama opening, discussion opened up; but in the context of growing US hostility, the Cuban authorities, as always – and as any government would, in the face of a perceived external threat – reacted against outside intervention by closing ranks,” the expert stressed.

“Direct intervention would be a disaster, with the resultant chaos and destruction causing suffering in Cuba and difficulties for the US. Whether or not it succeeded in its stated intention of ‘regime change’, it would be resisted by a large proportion of Cubans, and the resultant conflict would be costly in human terms,” Emily Morris concluded.


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