As protests erupted across Cuba last weekend, the country faced its severest test since the fall of the Soviet Union. But the system
founded is resilient, and those in charge are determined. Caught off guard initially by the protests, authorities responded quickly and forcefully, cutting off internet service and supplementing police forces with violent groups of regime supporters to shut down the fast-spreading protests.
Many observers expected the regime to disintegrate in the 1990s when the Soviet collapse left the island politically isolated and cut off from the subsidies that had kept its struggling economy afloat. Widespread food and energy shortages marked what Castro called the “special period,” but a mix of ruthless repression and shrewd opportunism kept the Communist Party in power.
Castro found new sources of revenue to replace the Soviet Union. Tourism brought foreign currency from Europeans and Canadians seeking sun and sex.
Venezuela provided energy in exchange for Cuban political and military assistance. Havana rented out its medical personnel overseas, with the government being paid directly for their services and providing the conscripted health workers with only a pittance. And Castro cynically weaponized the family ties between Cuban-Americans and their on-island relatives. Allowing Cuban-Americans to visit the island and to send money to their suffering family members brought desperately needed dollars into Cuba—and the government set up a network of dollar-only stores selling scarce goods at high prices to capture this revenue for itself.
Castro always regarded market forces with suspicion and, despite advice from Beijing, chose not to follow the Chinese or Vietnamese model. He did, however, introduce carefully limited market reforms when times were especially difficult, rolling them back when conditions improved.
He also manipulated the flow of resources to reinforce the regime. Havana wouldn’t permit an independent business sector on the island, and foreign investors were carefully monitored. No single investor, corporate or individual, was allowed to accumulate enough assets to pose any kind of political threat to the power structure.
at the head of the armed forces, ensured that loyal officers were the chief beneficiaries of the burgeoning tourism industry, and either the army, the state or the Communist Party was the privileged partner in joint ventures with foreign investors.
This system didn’t make the island prosperous, but it kept the Castro brothers in control. Backed by the army, the Communist Party, which maintains a nationwide network of snoops and enforcers, protects the regime. The regime ensures that its supporters receive priority access to whatever resources are available.
No one should think that the Cuban government wants a normal trading relationship with the U.S. The American embargo, which permits trade in food and medical supplies, is both a convenient excuse and an important policy tool for Havana. It’s an all-purpose rationalization for 60 years of economic failure (though the example of nearby Venezuela demonstrates that socialism can produce mass poverty and misery even without a U.S. embargo). It also prevents regime loyalists’ greatest nightmare: a tidal wave of Cuban-American investment regenerating the Cuban economy, ending the resource monopoly that keeps the government in power.
The question for Havana is whether this creaking system can still deliver goods to the hard-core supporters on whom Castro’s heirs depend. Are the snitches and thugs who form the backbone of Communist power willing to duke it out with the opposition for as long as it takes? So far, they have answered President
call for “all the revolutionaries of the country, all the communists, to take to the streets.” Will they persevere? With no tourism income, how happy is the military? And, in the last extremity, is it loyal enough to shoot protesters down in the streets?
The answers to these questions will for now determine the course of events in Cuba. In the longer term the question is whether the parasite can find new hosts: Can the Cuban government monetize Chinese and Russian hostility to the U.S. to provide a new long-term income stream?
While Mr. Diaz-Canel blames the current unrest on America, the Biden administration wouldn’t welcome instability on the island. In 1980 Castro responded to unrest by allowing some 125,000 Cubans to flee to the U.S., creating a major political headache for
Influenced no doubt by the anticommunist sentiments of Senate Foreign Relations Chairman
as well as by Florida’s power in the Electoral College, the Biden administration has left Trump-era sanctions on Cuba in place. Unless events on the island spin rapidly out of control, however, Washington is more likely to hold its nose and accommodate the Cuban status quo than to press hard for political change.
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