By Henry Srebrnik, [Fredericton, NB] Daily Gleaner
Until the coronavirus struck, Canadians seeking a cheap winter holiday looked at Cuba as a vacation spot. A million of us visit every winter. But the days when the island inspired Canadian left wingers are long gone.
Cuba, the first Communist nation in the western hemisphere, was considered a model throughout Latin America and as far afield as Africa and Asia – though it was probably admired more as a beachhead of anti-imperialism and defiance of the United States than for its Communism.
As a Soviet ally, so dangerous did it seem to Washington that the world narrowly averted a nuclear war in October 1962.
I wrote an MA thesis on the Cuban revolution at McGill University and visited the island in 1975. Those were the days when college students would hang posters of Che Guevara on their dorm walls. He was an icon in the true sense of the word.
Back then, you couldn’t fly to the island directly from Canada (not to mention the United States). I took a Russian-made airplane to Havana from Jamaica.
Though Fidel Castro and his 26th of July Movement came to power on New Year’s Day 1959, the Cuban Communist Party was holding its first formal party Congress that year, and the country was full of Russians and east Europeans. Tourism was non-existent.
How things have changed, especially with the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, which left Cuba in dire economic straits.
Cuba struggled desperately during the so-called “Special Period in Time of Peace.” Factories shut down and supply shortages became part of everyday life. The economy shrank by half between 1989 and 1992. In August 1994, angry mobs shouted “Freedom” and “Down with Fidel.” Some 33,000 Cubans fled for Florida in homemade rafts.
Castro’s death in 2016 had little effect on the functioning of a state that had been run by his brother Raúl since 2008. In October 2019, Raúl passed the presidency on to Miguel Díaz‑Canel, a 60-year-old bureaucrat who was born after the Cuban revolution. However, Castro still heads the Communist Party.
Under the Economic Modernization Plan of 2010, the state opened opportunities for small private business, such as family-run restaurants and home hotels. Farmers were given more autonomy and price incentives to produce more food.
However, the government still controls the lion’s share of the economy. Díaz-Canel is widely expected to represent continuity, and few Cubans have seen any dramatic shifts. The island still bears the stamp of half a century of “Fidelismo.”
Health and education remain free in Cuba. The country has the most doctors per capita of any country in the Americas, and life expectancy is 79.
Human rights groups say that the government continues to punish dissent and public criticism. Censorship affects literature, the arts, and the media. However, the number of long-term political prisoners in Cuba dropped significantly under Raúl Castro.
In today’s Cuba, 62 special stores offer a wealth of goods for sale – but only in a currency other than the Cuban peso. The move has seen an economic divide between people across the island. On one side, there are those people who receive their salaries in Cuban pesos, on the other, there are those who have relatives abroad and are able to get money, mainly U.S. dollars, transferred to them.
COVID-19 has made things far worse. Though the country has managed to contain the coronavirus quite well, tourist travel to Cuba has plummeted and the island lost an important source of hard currency, plunging it into one of the worst food shortages in nearly 25 years.
That left the Cuban government with far fewer sources of revenue to buy the products it sells in state-run stores, leading to shortages of basic goods throughout the island.
Despite resuming diplomatic relations in 2015 under President Barack Obama, Cuba and the U.S. still find themselves on poor terms. Under Donald Trump, the American economic embargo was tighter than ever.
But the prospect of a détente between Washington and Havana under Joe Biden may ease Cuba’s economic troubles. He plans to bring the U.S. closer to normalized relations with Cuba, reversing many of the sanctions and regulations imposed during the Trump administration