By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
For almost six decades, Cuba has been an iconic place of courage, stamina and standing up for one’s beliefs while defying a superpower, despite having to endure a punishing US embargo because of this. It might not be the socialist paradise that the leaders of the 1959 revolution promised, but they still built a society with a strong commitment to social justice.
Cuba is a fascinating place, full of contradictions. In all my visits there, including one with my students earlier this month, I have found it difficult not to admire its people’s perseverance in the face of adversity. So many of them live in poverty, but it never hampers their eternal optimism, even happiness, expressed through their music, art, and the endless positivity that they never fail to project.
Yet one would be mistaken to interpret this optimism as satisfaction with their current situation. More and more Cubans are expressing their desire for change. They complain Cuban-style, which is more of a grumble than complaint. They are proud of being Cubans, and would not like others to think ill of their country.
Nevertheless, they long for more opportunities to improve their economic situation and standard of living, and to have more say in the changes that the country is going through. But they do not want to see a reversal of the revolution and what it has achieved for them. This is Cuba’s and the Cubans’ conundrum.
Cuba will witness a momentous event, at least symbolically, this April when 86-year-old President Raul Castro will pass the torch to his Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel Bermudez. Well, almost. Castro is not in a hurry to relinquish power altogether. Even when he ceases to be president, he will still retain the all-powerful position of general secretary of the Communist Party.
In addition, Castro was selected earlier this week as a candidate for Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power by the Segundo Frente municipality in Santiago de Cuba. Once again the symbolism is clear, as Santiago de Cuba is the cradle of the revolution.
Changes are evident across the island, albeit mainly in the capital Havana. Cubans are demonstrating their entrepreneurial character by starting private businesses, increasingly in partnership with foreign investors. The tourism industry, which is a major source of hard currency, is booming.
But this creates one of the most striking distortions in the Cuban economy, which leads to a tremendous loss of human talent for work in this sector, or in any job that involves contact with foreigners. Cuba runs two currencies in parallel: The CUP, which is the peso that ordinary Cubans use, and the convertible peso, or CUC, used by foreign visitors, which is worth roughly $1.
Since 80 percent of the workforce is employed by the government and earns about the same, many Cubans, including highly educated ones, opt for employment in shops, hotels and restaurants, or as tourist guides, as long as they are paid or tipped in CUCs.
Cuba is a highly educated nation with extremely high levels of literacy. For example, it produces more doctors per capita than any other country. Not only does it send its doctors to work in the developing world, but it trains, free of charge, doctors from those countries most in need of such practitioners.
But as much as the old guard tries to maintain the spirit and values of the revolution, the younger generation of Cubans, though they love the free health system, free education and guaranteed (though modest) housing, nevertheless also longs for Western-style consumerism. Unfortunately, they do not always make the connection between the introduction of free-market capitalism and the high price that is attached to it.
No discussion on the situation in Cuba would be complete without examining its relations with the US. Toward the end of the Obama administration, diplomatic relations were at long last resumed.
Through executive orders, then-President Barack Obama managed to weaken the embargo, although he was unable to end it, as that power is in the hands of the US Congress. But changes were quickly seen, with American tourists flocking to explore the country, and those fabulous vintage cars that at home they could only see in museums.
This development seems to have been brought to a near standstill through President Donald Trump’s recent attempts to reverse his country’s improving relations with the island. During his election campaign, he promised the Cuban community in the US, most of whom live in Florida and are sworn enemies of the Castros, that he would undo Obama’s rapprochement policies.
Already, Cubans who want to travel to the US can no longer apply for visas in Havana. They must travel to Mexico or Columbia to do this, which makes it a very expensive trip and one beyond the means of most. This development has been particularly harmful to the business and academic collaborations that had just started budding.
Cuba has embarked on a journey of change. There is a realization that the current situation is unsustainable. The world in which the Cuban revolution was conceived and born is no more. But there are no easy options. To liberalize the economy too quickly might reverse the island to the state it was in under former President Fulgencio Batista before 1959: Subservient to US business and political interests.
Too slow a change will risk a growing malaise not only among the young, but also among wider segments in society. It remains, therefore, for Cubans to develop a model of change that serves them best, by maintaining the values of the revolution, but without stifling the resourcefulness of the Cuban people that will take them truly into the 21st century.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.