Are Cuba's Economic Reforms For Real?

Cuba has started making concessions to capitalism, but not out of necessity.


For a country ostensibly grounded in the rejection of crass commercialism, Cuba sure is remarkably savvy at marketing.

Over the summer, the proletariat paradise dispatched a fleet of state-trained doctors to West Africa to care for Ebola patients as part of its long-standing "global medical diplomacy" division. Regime officials framed the work as a natural extension of the selflessness animating the country's socialism. Fidel Castro himself called it "the greatest example of solidarity a human being can offer." And that spin was dutifully lapped up by the American media.

But, as is so often the case in Cuba, there's corrupt autocracy lurking under all that romantic sloganeering. The country's medical missionaries aren't working voluntarily—they have their passports confiscated and are kept under constant surveillance. Havana gets paid directly by foreign governments for their services and, instead of fairly compensating doctors, simply pockets most of the money to the tune of about $8 billion every year.

So Cuba successfully sold a cash grab as medical heroism. Nice.

Despite the undeniable failures and fascist abuses of Castro's revolution, Cuba still retains a sacred space in the imagination of the fashionable Left. Indeed, The Nation recently announced it had secured a special travel license from the Treasury Department to host a week-long "cultural exchange" cruise to Cuba early next year.

But what's most interesting about the country these days is that it has actually started making concessions to capitalism that would have been denounced and suppressed as anti-revolutionary not too long ago.

These are not concessions of choice; they're forced by extenuating circumstances. After the implosion of the Soviet Union, Venezuela stepped in as Cuba's chief enabler, supplying the island with up to 100,000 barrels of heavily-subsidized oil every day—a haul that constitutes fully 15 percent of Cuba's GDP. But the political and economic turmoil now wrecking Venezuela has put this patronage in jeopardy. Reporter Ann Louise Bardach—author of Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana, and Washington—told me the spigot could get shut off entirely as early as next year.

Cuba's other major source of income is tourism. From an international commerce perspective, the country is basically a decaying museum that has successfully diversified into the underage prostitution space. However, its tourist operations don't generate enough money to ward off economic disaster.

A few years ago, President Raul Castro (who took over for his older brother in 2008) announced a "311 point" plan for liberalizing the rules governing private business. The average Cuban can now buy and sell a cell phone, car, or house. And there is a limited entrepreneurial class, mostly in the form of independent cab drivers, hairdressers, and restaurateurs, according to my friend and Guardian contributor Michael Paarlberg, who's done extensive reporting in the country.

But economic liberalization hasn't been coupled with social reform. The Cuban government still jails dissidents and journalists. It still bans non-state newspapers and TV stations. Eleven million people are still forced to live in the spiritually-deadening atmosphere created by constant state surveillance, a struggle beautifully exhibited in filmmaker Nick Brennan's soon-to-be-released documentary chronicling Cuba's most popular hard rock band.

This year, 25,000 Cubans illegally fled for America. That's a 20-year high. Many made the 90-mile voyage by sea in homemade vessels powered by car engines. It's unclear how many more tried and failed. Would it spoil the fun of the The Nation's "cultural exchange" cruise for attendees to know they're traversing waters dotted with floating corpses, the last evidence of desperate attempts at a better life? 

It's great to see the Cuban economy getting less insane. But those bodies are sufficient evidence to prove Raul's reforms aren't enough.

NEXT: "It's unclear, however, how a reporter could hope to validate or invalidate something that happened behind closed doors a decade ago"

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  1. I’m not hopeful.

    I’ve linked to this before, but it’s an excellent look at the realities of Havana:…..m8.twitter

    It’s gonna take a hell of a lot more than a few token changes to undo the mess these fuckers made of a beautiful country.

    1. this reminds me of when I went full blown evil playing “Tropico” just to see how many rebels my military could hold off.

  2. Havana gets paid directly by foreign governments for their services and, instead of fairly compensating doctors, simply pockets most of the money to the tune of about $8 billion every year.

    Talk about exploitation.

    But at least they should rejoice that they’re slaving for the Revolution, and not a bunch of oligarchs!

    1. “Talk about exploitation.”

      Pretty sure that’s spelled “slavery”.

  3. “Would it spoil the fun of the The Nation’s “cultural exchange” cruise for attendees to know they’re traversing waters dotted with floating corpses,[?]”

    They’ll claim is was US folks trying to get into Cuba.

  4. Aw, now you’ve gone and made Commie Kid sad.

  5. From an international commerce perspective, the country is basically a decaying museum that has successfully diversified into the underage prostitution space.

    Nice link! (Ok, horrifying but still nice because it’s useful)

    I’ll use it next time some pinche puto comunista tells me in FB that Capitalism means children are exploited by the sex “market”.

  6. Hey if any of those Nation cultural tourists find any of those refugees still alive they could scoop them up and take them back home..get some great pics to show off back home…”see we were able to return those poor benighted cubans taken in by the false, corrupting forces of capitalism and save them!”

  7. I have been hearing a low drumbeat for some time now, to the effect that “Raul isn’t the hardliner that his Brother was”. Now, this is patently hogwash; Raul was his brother’s designated leg-breaker for years. But it does show as a straw in the wind. It seems to me that it indicates a concerted effort to do away with the embargo, once Fidel’s death gives them an excuse.

    1. cntd.

      Now, the biggest money incentive to do away with the embargo involves Cuban Cigars; there have to be dozens of cigar companies slavering over the prospect of bringing Cuban Cigars to the American Market.

      For myself? I won’t smoke one for at least ten years.

      Not because I’m a dedicated anti-communist – I can’t think of a faster way to undermine the Cuban government than to get them dependent for money on the kind of wheeler-dealers who run the cigars business. But the quality of said cigars will take a dive the moment the American Market is opened to them and can’t possibly recover for at least five years, with ten being likely. The Cuban Cigar makers are already having serious quality control problems. And they are also selling pretty much all the cigars they can make with the infrastructure that have. So, when they try to expand into the American Market, quality is going to take a nose-dive (and prices are going to hit the ceiling).

      It takes three years to go from seed to properly aged leaf. There’s no shortcut. Add a year to realize they have a serious problem, and another for the State to move. Five years, minimum. And that kind of presumes that there is money already working to shore up the crumbling infrastructure. It could easily be a lot longer. I sure would;t put money into Cuba unless I had a sure thing.

      For the record; the best cigar I have ever smoked came from Cuban (though several non-cubans come close). But so have several of the very worst.

      1. So you’re saying quality will decline because they will sell the tobacco before its been properly aged? Why? Because they need the money so desperately?

        I’m curious.

  8. Ah, but here’s a real “you can just rock me to sleep tonight” stumper:

    Is buying black market Cuban cigars counter-economic in the Agorism sense?

    1. It hardly matters. The “Black Market” is so flooded with bogus Cuban Cigars that what buying them is principally is an example of hope over evidence.

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  10. I went to Cuba 3 times. Once as a tour organizer from PA, USA. Once as a tourist, and once on a teacher-conference. Each time, via Mexico which is cheap and easy. The Cuban immigration official even asked if I wanted a stamp in my US passport or on a separate slip of paper.

    As expected, there were people waiting in lines for everything. Very interesting experience–most of the people I met wanted to LEAVE! Cubans seemed intelligent, so there is hope they will slowly :”capitalize” their existence and stop having to escape to Florida by the thousands.

  11. Forgot to mention; I bought 50 Cuban cigars, wrapped them in a Mexican newspaper when entering the USA, and got thru ok!
    In 1960, at the age of 19, I smuggled a live baby monkey on a flight from Panama to Miami, so I am an experienced criminal.

  12. “Cuba’s other major source of income is tourism. From an international commerce perspective, the country is basically a decaying museum that has successfully diversified into the underage prostitution space.”

    Cuba should be able to capture the lucrative pedophile tourism market from Thailand.

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