Although she did not participate in the historic protests that rocked the entire island of Cuba on Sunday, Caridad Montes, 50, says she understands why they took place.
“It’s very simple,” said Montes, a Havana resident. “They are tired of the hardships and want changes for the better.”
Cuba has struggled with severe shortages of food and medicine throughout the pandemic. People line up to buy whatever they can find in stores. Inflation and blackouts during the tropical summer heat made matters worse.
The Cuban government attributes the economic crisis to the decades-long US trade embargo on Cuba that was reinforced by the Trump administration, as well as the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. In a speech on Monday, President Miguel Díaz-Canel said that America’s “policy of economic suffocation” had a “cumulative effect” on Cuba.
But the embargo is not the only one responsible for Cuba’s woes. One of the most important factors that have led to years of economic stagnation is the country’s planned Soviet-style economy and its reluctance to adopt market-oriented reforms that other remaining communist countries have adopted.
“Reforms in Cuba do not depend on the embargo, and the embargo should be lifted unilaterally, regardless of reforms in Cuba. Both cause problems, ”said Pavel Vidal, a former Cuban central bank economist who teaches at Javeriana University in Colombia.
The 1980s were a period of little shortage in Cuba, thanks to subsidies from the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, subsidies dried up and Cuba battled extreme deprivation and massive food shortages, with its economy contracting by more than 35%. Many economists say Cuba has never really recovered.
The US embargo is having a negative impact on the economy, restricting imports and exports and making it riskier for investors to invest money in Cuba, Vidal said.
But at the same time, Cuba ignored the advice of China and Vietnam in adopting economic reforms. During an official visit in 2018, the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, Nguyen Phu Trong, urged Cuba to adopt a market economy, as Vietnam did in the 1980s. During its period of growth rapid economic development, 30 million Vietnamese were lifted out of poverty.
“Since the 1990s, many opportunities have been lost to reform the economy,” Vidal said. The Cuban government owns and operates most industries, and most of the workforce is employed by the state.
“I worry about them”
Faced with severe food and medicine shortages, Díaz-Canel recently stepped up the pace of reforms, unifying the country’s dual currency and legalizing the status of private companies that started operating decades ago, promising more movement. in that direction. But for the average Cuban, the reforms were too small and came far too late.
“There is a lack of credibility on the promised reforms. … It’s not just the economic crisis. People have no hope of getting out of the crisis for good, ”said Vidal. Former leader Raúl Castro promised ambitious economic reforms in 2011 that were never fully implemented.
In a fragile economy, the Covid-19 has struck.
Miami resident Odalys Campos, 55, has not visited her elderly parents in Cuba for two years. She used to make four to five trips a year to see them and her brothers, but worries about being forced into quarantine for two weeks if she tests positive for Covid-19 when she arrives, then to get stuck in Cuba for an extended period of time, as the limited flights are always full.
“I miss them so much and worry about them,” she said. “They are older and they have health problems. “
The island is grappling with an increase in the number of Covid-19 cases. It registered more than 6,000 new cases on Monday, and the province of Matanzas, where the resort of Varadero is located, is in the center.
In a statement to NBC News, the State Department said it is speeding up any request to export humanitarian or medical supplies to Cuba; the US embargo authorizes the export of agricultural and food products, drugs and medical equipment, as well as humanitarian goods to the island.
In the first six months of 2021, for example, Cuba imported $ 123 million worth of chicken from the United States, the State Department said.
Travel restrictions, less money for relatives
Cuba has entered the era of the pandemic with an already weakened economy. Former President Donald Trump’s travel restrictions had reduced tourism to the island, the second most lucrative source of revenue for the government after the export of medical professionals. The aid Cuba relied on from Venezuela had also declined dramatically after the economic and political crisis.
Cuba’s strict measures during the pandemic have been hailed for drastically limiting the number of Covid-19 infections last year. But the success has come at the expense of the economy. Cuba closed its borders for eight months without any tourism. Cuban Americans desperately tried to send medicine to loved ones through agencies, but it took months to arrive, adding to the frustration.
After Cuba reopened its airports, it restricted flights from the United States to avoid coronavirus infections. Flights from the United States had previously been restricted due to Trump-era sanctions. This measure has prevented many Cuban Americans living in the United States from visiting relatives who usually make trips laden with food and medicine. Strict quarantines make it impossible for Cuban-American weekend trips to unload goods and “mulas”, couriers who frequently transported packages from Miami to Cuba.
Remittances to Cuba, the third most lucrative source of revenue for the government, along with tourism, have reportedly taken a hit. There is no data on the amount of remittances to Cuba; At the start of the pandemic, remittances declined across Latin America as people found themselves out of work and unable to provide for their loved ones.
In November, Trump’s sanctions forced Western Union to shut down its 407 sites across Cuba. As Cubans abroad have continued to send funds through travel agencies and couriers and with traveling friends and family, the amount is believed to have declined.
All of this has dramatically reduced the amount of hard currency Cuba needs to purchase goods. The island relies on imports for most of its consumption, and it has struggled to import enough food and medicine. All of this, compounded by inflation and power outages that last for up to 12 hours in the sweltering summer heat, has led people to take to the streets to protest.
The Cuban government does not have the charisma or historical legitimacy of the revolutionary figures of Fidel and Raúl Castro, Vidal said.
As people protest, “he has to find legitimacy through his results,” he said.
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