One year after December 17th
December 17th will mark one year since the announcement of the "normalization" of Cuban-US relations. Even without knowing with any real specificity what this normalization consists of, it is worth asking how the process is unfolding, how much progress has been made and, above all, who has benefited thus far. Herein I will focus on the economic changes that might have been achieved during this period, and the corresponding benefits that may have impacted Cuban citizens not holding important positions in the country.
With the information available (which, as always is scarce) we can say that the most important change has been the significant increase in the number of Americans visiting Cuba. This means a rise in revenue in US dollars, mainly for the Cuban government and foreign operators of tourism facilities. It may be assumed that part of this surge in revenue has benefited the self-employed sector, formal and informal, which provides services to tourists, but there is no way to ascertain to what extent.
Thus, what thus far has been the most significant economic shift in Cuba since December 17, 2014 was the result of a unilateral decision by the US government, not by Cuba. It is important to point out that the latter seems content to wait and let the US take all the measures to improve the Cuban economy, without going any further than the reforms listed in its "guidelines," issued nearly five years ago. It is noteworthy that these reform measures either have never materialised, or have not yielded the expected results. In this regard the most important reform measure is the implementation of the Foreign Investment Law, which thus far does not seem to have attracted capital and projects, despite the many efforts undertaken towards this end.
It is true that one year is a short period of time to make substantial changes to a country's economy, but this comes five years after the announcement of the country's "guidelines." Raúl Castro's allusion to the speed of reform, indicating that it should be implemented "slowly but surely" clashes with the apparent standstill in the Cuban government's management.
Several factors suggest that the current economic situation remains precarious. For one, recent statements by Vice-president Machado Ventura, who called for an increase in agricultural production, are consistent with continuous reports of chronic shortages of food and other supplies affecting the whole country.
Moreover, the exodus of Cubans seeking US residency suggests that the people do not harbour high hopes for the future of the economy. To this can be added the recent accounts coming from the island regarding the suppression of self-employment not to the Government's liking. All this indicates governmental hostility towards economic activities that could improve, albeit marginally, the welfare of some citizens.
The government of Raúl Castro, in general, does not seem interested or is simply unable to foster the kind of favorable business climate that would ultimately rescue the national economy from its permanent crisis. A very recent example is the order issued by Raul Castro to expropriate 20 houses and two restaurants in his neighbourhood, for unstated reasons, which sends a clear and worrisome message to potential investors about the uncertainty surrounding the right to property ownership or exploitation in Cuba. Thus, Cuba continues to be run like a primitive and absolute monarchy (or perhaps worse, like a simple prison) in which the head of government, with a stroke of his pen, without any legal restrictions, can arbitrarily take radical measures such as the expropriation of homes.
Despite the criticism of the state of the Cuban economy that Raúl Castro himself presented and publicised years ago as the rationale for the introduction of his reform program, the reality is that the economy is showing no signs of substantial improvement, either for the benefit of the population, or the Government itself, which is alarming. What is actually happening in Cuba? Does Raúl Castro not dare to take the measures he himself endorsed under the guidelines advanced almost five years ago? Or are the administrative and Party bureaucracies blocking the changes necessary to improve the state of the national economy?
Meanwhile, the country continues to continuously deteriorate, permanently dependent on external sources of aid, now with the possible addition of the USA, and the further loss of its human capital in the form of young workers, slipping away in the current exodus. This capital is possibly Cuba's last resource to recover from this economic and social upheaval. But this deterioration cannot continue indefinitely. At some point it will reach a tipping point, although we do not know when, or what the final consequences will be.
The Cuban Revolution was sold to the population and the world as a process to ensure the country's economic independence from the US. The great irony of the story is that, after nearly 55 years of suffering the Castro clan's brand of socialism in pursuit of this goal, the future of the Cuban economy now depends more than ever on decisions made in Washington, thanks to the ineptitude and irresponsibility of the Castro brothers, compounded by an inability to implement the reforms that were announced.