By Arab News
By Dr. John C. Hulsman*
Graham Greene’s brilliant satire of the Cold War, 1958’s “Our Man in Havana,” tells the story of Jim Wormold, an increasingly desperate, lonely single parent in Cuba. Greene pokes fun at the self-important and fatuous Western intelligence agencies of the time, particularly his former employer, MI6.
The story — for my money the greatest modern political satire — reaches its climax when Wormold, a mediocre vacuum cleaner salesman, convinces the gullible spy agency that there are hidden missile silos in the jungles of the island, when in reality the photos taken to substantiate his spurious claim are actually pictures of the latest model of vacuum cleaner he sells.
Hilarious and biting, “Our Man in Havana” makes the basic political risk point that, when arrogant, powerful outsiders come to complex local political problems, they often make difficult situations worse. President Joe Biden, facing an unforeseen mini-crisis in (ironically) Cuba, must be careful not to serve as “Our Man in Washington” — a well-meaning, uninformed outsider who ends up harming the very democratic cause he champions.
On Sunday, organic, unplanned mass protests broke out in Cuba, originating in San Antonio de los Banos, before spreading to other cities, including the capital, Havana. Unprecedented crowds of people took to the streets, chanting “We want freedom,” and “Down with communism.” Predictably, the authoritarian government of Miguel Diaz-Canel responded by blocking internet access, detaining more than 100 dissidents and blaming the US for the whole sorry mess.
In reality, Diaz-Canel would do better to look in the mirror. During the past wretched pandemic year, Cuba’s always-weak economy has fared spectacularly badly. In 2020, gross domestic product declined a ruinous 11 percent, amounting to the greatest economic crisis Cuba has experienced in three decades.
First, the government spectacularly botched the pandemic crisis. There has been a spike in reported coronavirus (COVID-19) cases this year; by the week of July 5, fully 30,840 new cases had been reported. The COVID-19 outbreak has absolutely devastated Cuba’s vital tourism industry, which accounts for a tenth of the entire economy. In January-February 2021, there were only a miniscule 4.5 percent of the tourists on the island that there had been a year before — a devastating economic blow.
The reason for the government’s poor response is that, in the pandemic’s early days, Havana decided to go it alone, refusing all outside medical help and creating its own homegrown vaccine. The rollout of this local vaccine has been predictably slow and the death toll has risen sharply as a result, nearly overwhelming Cuba’s healthcare system and crippling the economy.
Second, there has been a sharp decline in the flow of subsidized oil from its hard-pressed ally, Venezuela, as Caracas has descended into chaos. Without this almost limitless supply of cheap energy, intermittent power outages have become the norm, enraging average Cubans and further harming the economy.
Last and far from least, the US trade embargo — in place since far-away February 1962 — remains a permanent shackle on the Cuban economy. While there was a slight loosening of strictures during the Obama administration, the Trump years saw a partial reversal of this thaw, as remittance restrictions on the Cuban-American community were reimposed in January 2017. During the 2020 campaign, Biden promised to revert to Obama’s partial thaw, but the president has yet to follow through on his campaign promise.
But this is largely beside the point; it is the trade embargo that is the major factor in the country’s penury. It is the worst of all worlds. The embargo has done real damage to ordinary Cubans. At the same time, it has, over five decades, failed to dislodge the authoritarian communist government of the Castro brothers. Worse, it has become Havana’s go-to excuse as to why Cuba remains mired in misery, shifting the blame away from where it squarely belongs: On the failings of the communist government itself.
True to form, Diaz-Canel charged that the demonstrations amounted to a US plot to “fracture” the Communist Party. Blaming the US embargo for the widespread shortages of food, fuel and medicine, and calling the American policy the “politics of economic asphyxiation,” Cuba’s leader is desperately shifting the blame, even as the thuggish crackdown against the demonstrators continues.
It is here that Greene comes in. Biden is quite right to voice strong rhetorical support for the demonstrators, saying the government ought to heed “their clarion call for freedom.” At the same time, he must do no harm, not half-heartedly involving himself in internal Cuban politics, just enough to give cover to his communist enemies, bellowing about “Yankee imperialism” so they do not have to answer for their own failings, but not doing nearly enough to dislodge them. Do not give Diaz-Canel and his apparatchiks an excuse for their mistakes; it is past time they owned them.
Better still, if the US really wants to threaten the survival of the Cuban regime, dropping the failed 50-year embargo (surely five decades of futility makes the policy suspect) and flooding Cuban society with capitalism is a far better strategy to follow. Biden must not become Our Man in Washington.
- Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via chartwellspeakers.com.