Cuba: From Thaw to Disillusion

Carlos Alberto Montaner
Escritor, periodista y político


( The Cuban-American thaw is back to a freeze. Or at least the temperature has dropped a lot. From the torrid beginning one year ago, when Obama and Raúl Castro, virtually hand in hand through television, announced the rapprochement, disillusionment has set in.

In a recent interview, the American president warned that he's not interested in visiting Cuba if there are no advances in the road to tolerance and if he's not allowed to meet with the dissidents and those who defend freedom of the press.

What has happened? Several predictable things.

First, the Cuban dictatorship negotiates nothing. It imposes conditions. The Castro brothers allowed conversations with Washington to proceed on the basis that its “old government of dead folks and flowers” was the victim of several decades of continued aggressions by the United States.

[Translator's Note: The quotation comes from Cuban singer Silvio Rodríguez's 1978 song “Ojalá.”]

Havana hoped that Obama would lift the embargo, lavishly indemnify the island, return the Guantánamo naval base, shut down Radio-TV Martí and pardon spy Ana Belén Montes, sentenced to 25 years' imprisonment for betraying her homeland for the benefit of the Castro regime.

The Cuban government had nothing to repent of. It was a perfect one-party democracy, the best in the world, endowed with an extraordinary electoral law, and if the Castro brothers stayed on top for 56 years it wasn't because of fear but because of the benevolent will of a nation 98 percent of whose citizens voted gratefully for the selected candidates.

In Cuba there were no political prisoners, only politicians imprisoned for delinquency. The dissidents and the democratic opposition had not been willfully segregated by the Cuban society. Those were artificial fabrications of the U.S. Embassy, totally disconnected from the working people.

In Cuba everyone was reasonably happy. Everybody studied. Everybody was cured. Everybody worked. The economy grew, despite some stumbles. It was a marvelous society, modest and united, characterized by the spirit of sacrifice with which it confronted the onslaughts of imperialism, and rejective of the consumption of capitalist trash.

In turn, the White House had a very different opinion. Obama thought that little Cuba, until then a victim of the Cold War, wanted to change its model of government gradually and he was willing to help. He hadn't the slightest idea that Fidel and Raúl Castro (in that order) saw his gesture of extending a hand and burying the hatchet as an acknowledgment of defeat.

That is why Obama was puzzled by virulent, demanding tone with which Raúl Castro claimed indemnification for the damages supposedly provoked by the embargo and the acts of undeclared war committed by the CIA.

Raúl began by asking $120 billion and soon reached the fabulous figure of $300 billion, ten times the amount of the Alliance for Progress, launched in the 1960s for all of Latin America.

There were also unexpected consequences. Obama had extended to Raúl an olive branch not to consolidate tyranny but to facilitate a transition to democracy, as he was trying to do in Myanmar (the former Burma) with another tribe of corrupt military men.

When Obama said in Panama that the United States had renounced to inducing a “regime change” in the island, he didn't mean that he was rejecting an evolution toward elections, freedoms and pluralism in Cuba but that he hoped to encourage the Cuban government to take that step voluntarily. He didn't want to defenestrate Raúl Castro but place him in a position where he would leap voluntarily.

But there was neither a suicide nor a promise of amendment. The CIA and the State Department notified the White House that, instead of choosing the path of a tranquil transition, the Cuban government had recrudesced the persecution of its foes within the island. Every passing day there were more detainees, more acts of repudiation, more beatings, more repression.

The “engagement” devised to open up the regime had served to shut it even more tightly, as if Raúl Castro had reached the paranoid conclusion that the hand extended by Obama concealed a dagger, from which he should defend himself by harshening the activities of the not-so-secret police.

And if the political opening had failed at least for the moment, all symptoms indicated that the economic opening had also foundered, at least from the viewpoint of the Cuban society.

After a first moment of euphoria, the Cubans had returned to their traditional pessimism. The situation was bad but would be worse in the future.

Among the thousands of exiles who left Cuba for Ecuador, many of them marooned in Costa Rica, there is an abundance of self-employed entrepreneurs. They started some small business so they could leave and pay the coyotes to guide them out of Ecuador to Mexico and thence to the United States.

Some 40,000 of them traversed seven countries and crossed into U.S. soil in 2015. Millions more await the opportunity to leave Cuba. Before 1959, the Cuban dream was to prosper inside the island, as four generations of Cubans did during the 57 years that that restless and exuberant republic lasted.

In turn, the Cuban dream after 57 years of the communist nightmare is to escape from that mini-hell aboard just about anything: a raft, a visa, a mature woman looking for love, a libidinous gentleman seeking an adventure, a venerable old man looking to adopt a young mendicant.


Who earns money in today's Cuba? Very few people, and all of them engaged in the tourism industry, given that they collect abroad and in hard currency. A society that has several different exchange rates for foreign currency, where the average salary is 24 U.S. dollars a month, simply has no way to develop gainful activities.

Serious investors, especially if they answer to stockholders and trade in the Stock Exchange, come to the island, realize that the world has 100 other markets that are safer and more hospitable, drink a mojito, swim in Varadero, and wave farewell. There is a reason why Moody's rates Cuban obligations as highly risky. They are. That system can't be fixed. It has to be replaced.


**Previously published in El Nuevo Herald on December 15, 2015 with the title Cuba, del deshielo a la desilusión.

*Carlos Alberto Montaner is a writer and journalist. Dozens of newspapers in Latin America, Spain and the United States publish his weekly column. He is the author of more than 25 books; several of them have been translated into English, Portuguese, Russian and Italian. He is a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Cuban & Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS), University of Miami.


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