Cuba is changing for the better—but will that kill “The System”?

Such graffiti can be seen everywhere in Cuba. But the same "revolucion" is to blame for the utmost poverty.

Such graffiti can be seen everywhere in Cuba. But the same “revolucion” is to blame for the utmost poverty.

I remember, growing up in the evil empire of the Soviet Union, nobody could go abroad if the KGB didn’t deem you worthy. Not even to the Soviet satellite states—like Poland or Yugoslavia.

If you wanted to go abroad, you were subjected to humiliating interrogations, phone taps, proving that you’re not a camel, standing in long visa queues etc. The Soviet authorities were rightfully worried that people who leave might never want to come back. I remember when my parents went to West Germany in the 1980ies, my brother and I stayed home—a guarantee that my parents would return.

To be able to go abroad, a Soviet citizen needed an exit visa alongside with an entry visa to the country he or she wished to visit. In the Soviet Union, there were also two types of passports—domestic and international. One only got the international passport when one was deemed worthy of getting the exit visa. Once one had the international passport, one could apply for an entry visa to the country one wanted to visit.

It was a biblical fucking nightmare.

Until today, Cubans were submitted to similar procedures when they wanted to go abroad. However, from today, the good people of this beautiful island nation are no longer required to have exit visas. They now only need a valid passport, enough money to buy a plane ticket and a country willing to accept them.

The regime in Cuba has been in constant changes for a few years now. First, in 2010, the regime started allowing private businesses, although taxing them heavily. The government prepared lists for jobs that people were allowed to hold as private individuals, without being employed by the government. “The System”, as the Cubans call it, had realised that they can’t continue on their path of building communism because they had run out of other people’s money.

Margaret Thatcher was right.

The most famous Cuban is not Fidel Castro. Nor Andy Garcia. The most famous Cuban is the old lady with a cigar. She sits next to El Bodeguita near the cathedral and makes a fortune, charging every tourist who wants her photo CUC1. And every self-respecting tourist does.

The most famous Cuban is not Fidel Castro. Nor Andy Garcia. The most famous Cuban is the old lady with a cigar. She sits next to El Bodeguita near the cathedral and makes a fortune, charging every tourist who wants her photo CUC1. And every self-respecting tourist does.

Now, the major step of abolishing exit visas. Go wherever you want, amigos, “The System” is saying. Hopefully you’ll come back, but if not, then we’ll still manage.

Well… Not really. With an average salary of US$18 a month, an average Cuban has to work tirelessly for decades before being able to afford a plane ticket to, say, Venezuela, where many Cubans have relatives.

To put things in perspective, a schoolteacher in Cuba makes about US$9.25 a month. An engineer or a doctor about US$11.32. A cigar roller, however, can make up to US$26.42, and a very good cigar roller can even earn a special bonus, up to US$30 a month in addition to the salary.

When I visited Cuba in 2011, a tour guide in the Partagas cigar factory, in fact an educated engineer, explained that he’s much better off at his current job than he was as an engineer. He also mentioned his friends who work two jobs in order to survive: they either teach or practice medicine half a day for pennies, and then roll cigars for the other half.

In a country where engineers and doctors wilfully work as tour guides at a cigar factory because it pays a lot more than their learnt occupation, you just don’t have money to spare. So even if “The System” changes and grants you liberties that you didn’t have before (even though for us these “liberties” are normality), is it really dying or even preparing to die?

That’s very questionable.

Cohiba cigars are produced in many cigar factories in Cuba. "Fake" Cohibas are also produced in Dominican Republic.

Cohiba cigars are produced in many cigar factories in Cuba. “Fake” Cohibas are also produced in Dominican Republic.

The thing is, Cuba and its regime have shown us for decades that even though the people are dirt-poor, even though that there are no civil liberties, even though the people nor the regime have no money, they somehow manage. After the collapse of the Soviet Union they stopped having a sponsor who pays for everything. That was almost 23 years ago, and they have still managed to keep their island afloat. Whether it’s the Cuban psyche, or the constant sunshine that leaves the people no worry, they’ve managed.

Therefore, is there a reason for “The System” to either be killed or die on its own? With the people not fighting for their rights, with no “revolution” or a mutiny in sight, I frankly can’t predict it for the foreseeable future.

Unless…

A fact of history is that an evil, oppressive regime cannot last for eternity. There’s a limit to the power of every such regime. It took the Soviet Union 70+ years. China is changing, and so is Vietnam. North Korea can’t last for more than a decade. Burma has already changed. Russia will eventually, too. And so will Cuba.

But with Cuba there is one very important key element that could force it to change.

The US embargo.

The embargo that has been in place since President John F Kennedy signed it into law 1962. It’s a full commercial, economic and financial embargo that bans but all relations with Cuba for American citizens. And since 1962 it has proven incredibly inefficient. (Sorry, my Republican friends, but in this matter, it’s time to face reality.)

A poor Cuban in Trinidad. This is his only means of transportation.

A poor Cuban in Trinidad. This is his only means of transportation.

President Barack Obama, with whom I don’t agree on pretty much anything, has however taken steps to at least ease the embargo. In 2009, he started allowing Cuban Americans to travel freely to their homeland. In 2011, he started allowing students and religious missionaries to travel to Cuba. He has hinted that if Cuba is willing to open up its closed society, if it released political prisoners, and allowed US telecom companies to operate there, and if “The System” ended charging enormous fees on US dollars sent to Cuba by people’s relatives in the US, he might ease the embargo even further.

But that is not enough. I think since the embargo has always—both during the Cold War and long after—proven so inefficient, President Obama should just outright lift the embargo entirely.

No, I’m not becoming a Leftie, and no, I’m not becoming soft in old age. I just think that it makes perfect sense, also from a very conservative point of view.

President Obama’s hints at opening up the Cuban society and freeing the political prisoners are in fact a very Reaganite approach. Weren’t demands like that exactly what made the Soviet Union change and eventually collapse?

The United States, in my opinion, is the world’s policeman. It’s the country that always stands up for democracy, human rights and freedom. It has taken this role and has fulfilled it around the globe. I think it’s time to take the same approach with Cuba.

Jose Martí monument at Plaza de la Revolucion. Martí is used as a propaganda character all over Cuba, although he never really was a communist.

Jose Martí monument at Plaza de la Revolucion. Martí is used as a propaganda character all over Cuba, although he never really was a communist.

Throughout the embargo, the Cuban regime has blamed the United States for Cuba’s poor shape. In fact, it’s “The System’s” favourite excuse for its economic failures, as Yoani Sánchez, a famous Cuban blogger, points out in her recent Foreign Policy article. She says, quite rightly, if the embargo were lifted: “The country’s sad state could no longer be blamed on our neighbor to the north. It would be a hard ideological blow.” It would, indeed.

But after lifting the embargo, the United States could go beyond. Let’s face it, lifting the embargo will not do any miracles. Cubans will not get rich, oppression will not stop, political prisoners would still remain in gaol and freedom will not just on its own prevail over evil.

The United States could go beyond. It could offer help to the Cubans, and to the Cuban regime. In return for reforms. In return for implementing freedoms. In return for releasing political prisoners. In return for implementing market economy. In return for allowing other parties exist alongside the Communist Party of Cuba. In return for free elections.

In return for allowing Cuba transform into a normal, democratic country.

It worked when President Reagan did it with the Soviet Union. It can work when Barack Obama would do that with Cuba. Let’s be honest—President Obama will not have much of a domestic legacy. Helping Cuba build a functioning democracy, however, could be a legacy that no one in the future will ever dispute. It’s your chance, Mr President.

We all know Cubans need that help. Even the Cuban regime knows that. Even Fidel and Raul Castro know that. It’s time for the rest of the world to know that as well. And it’s time to act.

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