The Dangers of a Cuban Collapse
It could happen sooner than we think. Is Obama ready?
By DANIEL SERWER March 26, 2014
Cuba’s 1950s cars and Havana’s crumbling facades have long been its
iconic symbols in the American imagination. They don’t disappoint, as I
discovered on a trip to Cuba last week. But I didn’t expect zippy
Hyundais with Miami FM on their radios or a private collection of
contemporary Cuban art, installed floor to 20-foot ceiling in a fabulous
apartment with a terrace overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Both the
apartment and the art would put many wealthy New Yorkers to shame.
Cubans remain poor. It would be no fun to live on the $15-35 per month
that is paid to most government employees. Even with subsidized (and
rationed) staples as well as free rent, health care and education, many
neighborhoods of Havana are decrepit. Balconies fall off apartment
buildings. Whole buildings collapse into the street. People wait in long
lines to collect remittances at Western Union, whose window has a faded
poster of Fidel and Raul Castro declaring, “The Revolution, thriving and
victorious, is moving ahead.” The woman in line wearing American flag
tights—stripes on one leg, stars on the other—is no doubt in the
revolutionary vanguard. Cuba depends for hard currency on remittances
from the United States and Europe, as well as payments and subsidies
estimated at $9.4 billion per year from Venezuela. Caracas is not in a
position to continue that much longer, raising the specter of economic
collapse and a massive outflow of people that could present the United
States with an unexpected foreign policy crisis on its own doorstep.
But for now, no one is starving and few are homeless. Life expectancy is
over 79 years, higher than Puerto Rico’s. Everyone can read. In an all
too apparent display of wellbeing, men and women dress in tight-fitting
clothes that display ample belly fat. Tourists walk safely, even at
night. Restaurant hawkers and pedicab drivers tug at their elbows but
shake off easily. The Havana Historian’s Office has tastefully restored
three or four of the oldest squares in the city to something like their
former glory, as well as most of the surrounding cobble-stoned streets.
There is music everywhere: American for young Cubans, Cuban for the
Americans and Europeans.
This relative prosperity is a sharp contrast to the Cuba of 25 years
ago. Already decimated by three decades of revolution and embargo, the
economy collapsed when the Soviet Union broke up and its subsidies
ended. Cuba entered its “special period” in the early 1990s, when food
and fuel were scarce. For a while, the dollar was in circulation,
because no one had confidence in the peso. Now Cuba has two currencies:
the convertible peso (known as the CUC) and the peso, worth far less and
nonconvertible. Eighty percent of transactions are now said to be
conducted in CUCs.
The eternally youthful revolutionaries Che Guevara and Camilo
Cienfuegos, both long dead, grace many more walls in Havana than the
Castro brothers, who are rarely seen or heard in public but cast long
shadows from their wooded estates in upper-crust Miramar. Their
political control is still unchallenged, but they don’t need to
demonstrate it often. Cubans, who complain a lot about the system,
rarely organize against it or even have clear ideas of how they would
want it to change. A painting in that fabulous apartment expressed the
feeling well: It showed a massive demonstration surrounded by high
walls. The demonstrators held signs with nothing written on them. Like
Mario Comte, the detective anti-hero of novelist Leonardo Padura’s
masterful Havana series, ordinary Cubans see the seamier side of things
and want to hold miscreants responsible, but they offer no viable
proposition for systemic political change. Asked whether they would want
more direct elections or political parties, Cubans shrug.
Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced
International Studies and a scholar at its Center for Transatlantic
Relations. He blogs at www.peacefare.net and tweets @DanielSerwer. He is
the author of Righting the Balance: How You Can Help Protect America.
Source: The Dangers of a Cuban Collapse – Daniel Serwer – POLITICO