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.