• The objective of this Blog is to facilitate access to research resources and analyses from all relevant and useful sources, mainly on the economy of Cuba. It includes analyses and observations of the author, Arch Ritter, as well as hyper-links, abstracts, summaries, and commentaries relating to other research works from academic, governmental, media, non-governmental organizations and international institutions.
    Commentary, critique and discussion on any of the postings is most welcome.
    This Blog on The Cuban Economy is dedicated to Cuba's Generation "A". Although inspired by Yoani Sánchez' original blog "Generation Y" this is not dedicated to those with names starting with the letter "A". Instead, it draws from Douglas Coupland's novel Generation A which begins with a quotation from Kurt Vonnegut at a University Commencement:
    "... I hereby declare you Generation A, as much as the beginning of a series of astounding triumphs and failures as Adam and Eve were so long ago."

VENEZUELA’S SUICIDE: LESSONS FROM A FAILED STATE, With emphasis on Cuba-Venezuela Relations

By Moisés Naím and Francisco Toro

Original Article: Venezuela’s Suicide,  Foreign Affairs, November –December 2018

Consider two Latin American countries. The first is one of the region’s oldest and strongest democracies. It boasts a stronger social safety net than any of its neighbors and is making progress on its promise to deliver free health care and higher education to all its citizens. It is a model of social mobility and a magnet for immigrants from across Latin America and Europe. The press is free, and the political system is open; opposing parties compete fiercely in elections and regularly alternate power peacefully. It sidestepped the wave of military juntas that mired some Latin American countries in dictatorship. Thanks to a long political alliance and deep trade and investment ties with the United States, it serves as the Latin American headquarters for a slew of multinational corporations. It has the best infrastructure in South America. It is still unmistakably a developing country, with its share of corruption, injustice, and dysfunction, but it is well ahead of other poor countries by almost any measure.

The second country is one of Latin America’s most impoverished nations and its newest dictatorship. Its schools lie half deserted. The health system has been devastated by decades of underinvestment, corruption, and neglect; long-vanquished diseases, such as malaria and measles, have returned. Only a tiny elite can afford enough to eat. An epidemic of violence has made it one of the most murderous countries in the world. It is the source of Latin America’s largest refugee migration in a generation, with millions of citizens fleeing in the last few years alone. Hardly anyone (aside from other autocratic governments) recognizes its sham elections, and the small portion of the media not under direct state control still follows the official line for fear of reprisals. By the end of 2018, its economy will have shrunk by about half in the last five years. It is a major cocaine-trafficking hub, and key power brokers in its political elite have been indicted in the United States on drug charges. Prices double every 25 days. The main airport is largely deserted, used by just a handful of holdout airlines bringing few passengers to and from the outside world.

Bottom of Form

These two countries are in fact the same country, Venezuela, at two different times: the early 1970s and today. The transformation Venezuela has undergone is so radical, so complete, and so total that it is hard to believe it took place without a war. What happened to Venezuela? How did things go so wrong?

The short answer is Chavismo. Under the leadership of Hugo Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro, the country has experienced a toxic mix of wantonly destructive policy, escalating authoritarianism, and kleptocracy, all under a level of Cuban influence that often resembles an occupation. Any one of these features would have created huge problems on its own. All of them together hatched a catastrophe. Today, Venezuela is a poor country and a failed and criminalized state run by an autocrat beholden to a foreign power. The remaining options for reversing this situation are slim; the risk now is that hopelessness will push Venezuelans to consider supporting dangerous measures, such as a U.S.-led military invasion, that could make a bad situation worse.

CHAVISMO RISING

To many observers, the explanation for Venezuela’s predicament is simple: under Chávez, the country caught a strong case of socialism, and all its subsequent disasters stem from that original sin. But Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Uruguay have also elected socialist governments in the last 20 years. Although each has struggled politically and economically, none—aside from Nicaragua—has imploded. Instead, several have prospered.

If socialism cannot be blamed for Venezuela’s demise, perhaps oil is the culprit. The most calamitous stage of Venezuela’s crisis has coincided neatly with the sharp fall in international oil prices that started in 2014. But this explanation is also insufficient. Venezuela’s decline began four decades ago, not four years ago. By 2003, Venezuela’s GDP per worker had already declined by a disastrous 37 percent from its 1978 peak—precisely the decline that first propelled Chávez into office. Moreover, all of the world’s petrostates suffered a serious income shock in 2014 as a result of plummeting oil prices. Only Venezuela could not withstand the pressure.

The drivers of Venezuela’s failure run deeper. Decades of gradual economic decline opened the way for Chávez, a charismatic demagogue wedded to an outdated ideology, to take power and establish a corrupt autocracy modeled on and beholden to Cuba’s dictatorship. Although the crisis preceded Chávez’s rise to power, his legacy and Cuba’s influence must be at the center of any attempt to explain it.

Chávez was born in 1954 into a lower-middle-class family in a rural town. He became a career military officer on a baseball scholarship and was soon secretly recruited into a small leftist movement that spent over a decade plotting to overthrow the democratic regime. He exploded into Venezuela’s national consciousness on February 4, 1992, when he led an unsuccessful coup attempt. This misadventure landed him in jail but turned him into an improbable folk hero who embodied growing frustration with a decade of economic stagnation. After receiving a pardon, he launched an outsider bid for the presidency in 1998 and won in a landslide, upending the two-party system that had anchored Venezuelan democracy for 40 years.

What drove the explosion of populist anger that brought Chávez to power? In a word, disappointment. The stellar economic performance Venezuela had experienced for five decades leading up to the 1970s had run out of steam, and the path to the middle class had begun to narrow. As the economists Ricardo Hausmann and Francisco Rodríguez noted, “By 1970 Venezuela had become the richest country in Latin America and one of the twenty richest countries in the world, with a per capita GDP higher than Spain, Greece, and Israel and only 13 percent lower than that of the United Kingdom.” But by the early 1980s, a weakened oil market had brought the era of fast growth to an end. Lower oil revenue meant cuts in public spending, scaled-down social programs, currency devaluation, runaway inflation, a banking crisis, and mounting unemployment and hardship for the poor. Even so, Venezuela’s head start was such that when Chávez was elected, it had a per capita income in the region that was second only to Argentina’s.

Another common explanation for Chávez’s rise holds that it was driven by voters’ reaction against economic inequality, which was driven in turn by pervasive corruption. But when Chávez came to power, income was more evenly distributed in Venezuela than in any neighboring country. If inequality determined electoral outcomes, then a Chávez-like candidate would have been more probable in Brazil, Chile, or Colombia, where the gap between the well-off and everyone else was larger.

Venezuela may not have been collapsing in 1998, but it had been stagnating and, in some respects, backsliding, as oil prices slumped to just $11 per barrel, leading to a new round of austerity. Chávez was brilliant at mining the resulting discontent. His eloquent denunciations of inequality, exclusion, poverty, corruption, and the entrenched political elite struck a chord with struggling voters, who felt nostalgic for an earlier, more prosperous period. The inept and complacent traditional political and business elite who opposed Chávez never came close to matching his popular touch.

Venezuelans gambled on Chávez. What they got was not just an outsider bent on upending the status quo but also a Latin American leftist icon who soon had followers all around the world. Chávez became both a spoiler and the star attraction at global summits, as well as a leader of the burgeoning global wave of anti-American sentiment sparked by U.S. President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. At home, shaped by his career in the military, Chávez had a penchant for centralizing power and a profound intolerance of dissent. He set out to neuter not just opposition politicians but also political allies who dared question his policies. His collaborators quickly saw which way the wind was blowing: policy debates disappeared, and the government pursued a radical agenda with little forethought and no real scrutiny.

A 2001 presidential decree on land reform, which Chávez handed down with no consultation or debate, was a taste of things to come. It broke up large commercial farms and turned them over to peasant cooperatives that lacked the technical know-how, management skills, or access to capital to produce at scale. Food production collapsed. And in sector after sector, the Chávez government enacted similarly self-defeating policies. It expropriated foreign-owned oil ventures without compensation and gave them to political appointees who lacked the technical expertise to run them. It nationalized utilities and the main telecommunications operator, leaving Venezuela with chronic water and electricity shortages and some of the slowest Internet connection speeds in the world. It seized steel companies, causing production to fall from 480,000 metric tons per month before nationalization, in 2008, to effectively nothing today. Similar results followed the seizure of aluminum companies, mining firms, hotels, and airlines.

Diaz-Canel and Maduro

In one expropriated company after another, state administrators stripped assets and loaded payrolls with Chávez cronies. When they inevitably ran into financial problems, they appealed to the government, which was able to bail them out. By 2004, oil prices had spiked again, filling government coffers with petrodollars, which Chávez spent without constraints, controls, or accountability. On top of that were the easy loans from China, which was happy to extend credit to Venezuela in exchange for a guaranteed supply of crude oil. By importing whatever the hollowed-out Venezuelan economy failed to produce and borrowing to finance a consumption boom, Chávez was able to temporarily shield the public from the impact of his disastrous policies and to retain substantial popularity.

But not everyone was convinced. Oil industry workers were among the first to sound the alarm about Chávez’s authoritarian tendencies. They went on strike in 2002 and 2003, demanding a new presidential election. In response to the protests, Chávez fired almost half of the work force in the state-run oil company and imposed an arcane currency-exchange-control regime. The system morphed into a cesspool of corruption, as regime cronies realized that arbitraging between the state-authorized exchange rate and the black market could yield fortunes overnight. This arbitrage racket created an extraordinarily wealthy elite of government-connected kleptocrats. As this budding kleptocracy perfected the art of siphoning off oil proceeds into its own pockets, Venezuelan store shelves grew bare.

It was all painfully predictable—and widely predicted. But the louder local and international experts sounded the alarm, the more the government clung to its agenda. To Chávez, dire warnings from technocrats were a sign that the revolution was on the right track.

PASSING THE TORCH

In 2011, Chávez was diagnosed with cancer. Top oncologists in Brazil and the United States offered to treat him. But he opted instead to search for a cure in Cuba, the country he trusted not only to treat him but also to be discreet about his condition. As his illness progressed, his dependence on Havana deepened, and the mystery about the real state of his health grew. On December 8, 2012, an ailing Chávez made one final television appearance to ask Venezuelans to make Maduro, then vice president, his successor. For the next three months, Venezuela was governed spectrally and by remote control: decrees emanated from Havana bearing Chávez’s signature, but no one saw him, and speculation was rife that he had already died. When Chávez’s death was finally announced, on March 5, 2013, the only thing that was clear amid the atmosphere of secrecy and concealment was that Venezuela’s next leader would carry on the tradition of Cuban influence.

Chávez had long looked to Cuba as a blueprint for revolution, and he turned to Cuban President Fidel Castro for advice at critical junctures. In return, Venezuela sent oil: energy aid to Cuba (in the form of 115,000 barrels a day sold at a deep discount) was worth nearly $1 billion a year to Havana. The relationship between Cuba and Venezuela became more than an alliance. It has been, as Chávez himself once put it, “a merger of two revolutions.” (Unusually, the senior partner in the alliance is poorer and smaller than the junior partner—but so much more competent that it dominates the relationship.) Cuba is careful to keep its footprint light: it conducts most of its consultations in Havana rather than Caracas.

It did not escape anyone’s attention that the leader Chávez annointed to succeed him had devoted his life to the cause of Cuban communism. As a teenager, Maduro joined a fringe pro-Cuban Marxist party in Caracas. In his 20s, instead of going to university, he sought training in Havana’s school for international cadres to become a professional revolutionary. As Chávez’s foreign minister from 2006 to 2013, he had seldom called attention to himself: only his unfailing loyalty to Chávez, and to Cuba, propelled his ascent to the top. Under his leadership, Cuba’s influence in Venezuela has become pervasive. He has stacked key government posts with activists trained in Cuban organizations, and Cubans have come to occupy sensitive roles within the Venezuelan regime. The daily intelligence briefs Maduro consumes, for instance, are produced not by Venezuelans but by Cuban intelligence officers.

With Cuban guidance, Maduro has deeply curtailed economic freedoms and erased all remaining traces of liberalism from the country’s politics and institutions. He has continued and expanded Chávez’s practice of jailing, exiling, or banning from political life opposition leaders who became too popular or hard to co-opt. Julio Borges, a key opposition leader, fled into exile to avoid being jailed, and Leopoldo López, the opposition’s most charismatic leader, has been moved back and forth between a military prison and house arrest. Over 100 political prisoners linger in jails, and reports of torture are common. Periodic elections have become farcical, and the government has stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly of all powers. Maduro has deepened Venezuela’s alliances with a number of anti-American and anti-Western regimes, turning to Russia for weapons, cybersecurity, and expertise in oil production; to China for financing and infrastructure; to Belarus for homebuilding; and to Iran for car production.

As Maduro broke the last remaining links in Venezuela’s traditional alliances with Washington and other Latin American democracies, he lost access to sound economic advice. He dismissed the consensus of economists from across the political spectrum: although they warned about inflation, Maduro chose to rely on the advice of Cuba and fringe Marxist policy advisers who assured him that there would be no consequences to making up budget shortfalls with freshly minted money. Inevitably, a devastating bout of hyperinflation ensued.

A toxic combination of Cuban influence, runaway corruption, the dismantling of democratic checks and balances, and sheer incompetence has kept Venezuela locked into catastrophic economic policies. As monthly inflation rates top three digits, the government improvises policy responses that are bound to make the situation even worse.

ANATOMY OF A COLLAPSE

Nearly all oil-producing liberal democracies, such as Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States, were democracies before they became oil producers. Autocracies that have found oil, such as Angola, Brunei, Iran, and Russia, have been unable to make the leap to liberal democracy. For four decades, Venezuela seemed to have miraculously beat these odds—it democratized and liberalized in 1958, decades after finding oil.

But the roots of Venezuelan liberal democracy turned out to be shallow. Two decades of bad economics decimated the popularity of the traditional political parties, and a charismatic demagogue, riding the wave of an oil boom, stepped into the breach. Under these unusual conditions, he was able to sweep away the whole structure of democratic checks and balances in just a few years.

When the decadelong oil price boom ended in 2014, Venezuela lost not just the oil revenue on which Chávez’s popularity and international influence had depended but also access to foreign credit markets. This left the country with a massive debt overhang: the loans taken out during the oil boom still had to be serviced, although from a much-reduced income stream. Venezuela ended up with politics that are typical of autocracies that discover oil: a predatory, extractive oligarchy that ignores regular people as long they stay quiet and that violently suppresses them when they protest.

The resulting crisis is morphing into the worst humanitarian disaster in memory in the Western Hemisphere. Exact figures for Venezuela’s GDP collapse are notoriously difficult to come by, but economists estimate that it is comparable to the 40 percent contraction of Syria’s GDP since 2012, following the outbreak of its devastating civil war. Hyperinflation has reached one million percent per year, pushing 61 percent of Venezuelans to live in extreme poverty, with 89 percent of those surveyed saying they do not have the money to buy enough food for their families and 64 percent reporting they have lost an average of 11 kilograms (about 24 pounds) in body weight due to hunger. About ten percent of the population—2.6 million Venezuelans—have fled to neighboring countries.

The Venezuelan state has mostly given up on providing public services such as health care, education, and even policing; heavy-handed, repressive violence is the final thing left that Venezuelans can rely on the public sector to consistently deliver. In the face of mass protests in 2014 and 2017, the government responded with thousands of arrests, brutal beatings and torture, and the killing of over 130 protesters.

Meanwhile, criminal business is increasingly conducted not in defiance of the state, or even simply in cahoots with the state, but directly through it. Drug trafficking has emerged alongside oil production and currency arbitrage as a key source of profits to those close to the ruling elite, with high-ranking officials and members of the president’s family facing narcotics charges in the United States. A small connected elite has also stolen national assets to a unprecedented degree. In August, a series of regime-connected businessmen were indicted in U.S. federal courts for attempting to launder over $1.2 billion in illegally obtained funds—just one of a dizzying array of illegal scams that are part of the looting of Venezuela. The entire southeastern quadrant of the country has become an exploitative illegal mining camp, where desperate people displaced from cities by hunger try their luck in unsafe mines run by criminal gangs under military protection. All over the country, prison gangs, working in partnership with government security forces, run lucrative extortion rackets that make them the de facto civil -authority. The offices of the Treasury, the central bank, and the national oil company have become laboratories where complicated financial crimes are hatched. As Venezuela’s economy has collapsed, the lines separating the state from criminal enterprises have all but disappeared.

THE VENEZUELAN DILEMMA

Whenever U.S. President Donald Trump meets with a Latin American leader, he insists that the region do something about the Venezuelan crisis. Trump has prodded his own national security team for “strong” alternatives, at one point stating that there are “many options” for Venezuela and that he is “not going to rule out the military option.” Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has similarly flirted with a military response. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, however, has echoed a common sentiment of the U.S. security apparatus by publicly stating, “The Venezuelan crisis is not a military matter.” All of Venezuela’s neighboring countries have also voiced their opposition to an armed attack on Venezuela.

And rightly so. Trump’s fantasies of military invasion are deeply misguided and extremely dangerous. Although a U.S.-led military assault would likely have no problem overthrowing Maduro in short order, what comes next could be far worse, as the Iraqis and the Libyans know only too well: when outside powers overthrow autocrats sitting atop failing states, open-ended chaos is much more likely to follow than stability—let alone democracy.

Nonetheless, the United States will continue to face pressure to find some way of arresting Venezuela’s collapse. Each initiative undertaken so far has served only to highlight that there is, in reality, little the United States can do. During the Obama administration, U.S. diplomats attempted to engage the regime directly. But negotiations proved futile. Maduro used internationally mediated talks to neutralize massive street protests: protest leaders would call off demonstrations during the talks, but Chavista negotiators would only stonewall, parceling out minor concessions designed to divide their opponents while they themselves prepared for the next wave of repression. The United States and Venezuela’s neighbors seem to have finally grasped that, as things stand, negotiations only play into Maduro’s hands.

Some have suggested using harsh economic sanctions to pressure Maduro to step down. The United States has tried this. It passed several rounds of sanctions, under both the Obama and Trump administrations, to prevent the regime from issuing new debt and to hamper the financial operation of the state-owned oil company. Together with Canada and the EU, Washington has also put in place sanctions against specific regime officials, freezing their assets abroad and imposing travel restrictions. But such measures are redundant: if the task is to destroy the Venezuelan economy, no set of sanctions will be as effective as the regime itself. The same is true for an oil blockade: oil production is already in a free fall.

Washington can sharpen its policy on the margins. For one thing, it needs to put more emphasis on a Cuban track: little can be achieved without Havana’s help, meaning that Venezuela needs to be front and center in every contact Washington and its allies have with Havana. The United States can cast a wider net in countering corruption, preventing not just crooked officials but also their frontmen and families from enjoying the fruits of corruption, drug trafficking, and embezzlement. It could also work to turn the existing U.S. arms embargo into a global one. The Maduro regime must be constrained in its authoritarian intent with policies that communicate clearly to its cronies that continuing to aid the regime will leave them isolated in Venezuela and that turning on the regime is, therefore, the only way out. Yet the prospects of such a strategy succeeding are dim.

After a long period of dithering, the other Latin American countries are finally grasping that Venezuela’s instability will inevitably spill across their borders. As the center-left “pink wave” of the early years of this century recedes, a new cohort of more conservative leaders in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru has tipped the regional balance against Venezuela’s dictatorship, but the lack of actionable options bedevils them, as well. Traditional diplomacy hasn’t worked and has even backfired. But so has pressure. For example, in 2017, Latin American countries threatened to suspend Venezuela’s membership in the Organization of American States. The regime responded by withdrawing from the organization unilaterally, displaying just how little it cares about traditional diplomatic pressure.

Venezuela’s exasperated neighbors are increasingly seeing the crisis through the prism of the refugee problem it has created; they are anxious to stem the flow of malnourished people fleeing Venezuela and placing new strains on their social programs. As a populist backlash builds against the influx of Venezuelan refugees, some Latin American countries appear tempted to slam the door shut—a temptation they must resist, as it would be a historic mistake that would only worsen the crisis. The reality is that Latin American countries have no idea what to do about Venezuela. There may be nothing they can do, save accepting refugees, which will at least help alleviate the suffering of the Venezuelan people.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Today, the regime is so solidly entrenched that a change of faces is much more likely than a change of system. Perhaps Maduro will be pushed out by a slightly less incompetent leader who is able to render Cuban hegemony in Venezuela more sustainable. Such an outcome would merely mean a more stable foreign-dominated petro-kleptocracy, not a return to democracy. And even if opposition forces—or a U.S.-led armed attack—somehow managed to replace Maduro with an entirely new government, the agenda would be daunting. A successor regime would need to reduce the enormous role the military plays in all areas of the public sector. It would have to start from scratch in restoring basic services in health care, education, and law enforcement. It would have to rebuild the oil industry and stimulate growth in other economic sectors. It would need to get rid of the drug dealers, prison racketeers, predatory miners, wealthy criminal financiers, and extortionists who have latched on to every part of the state. And it would have to make all these changes in the context of a toxic, anarchic political environment and a grave economic crisis.

Given the scale of these obstacles, Venezuela is likely to remain unstable for a long time to come. The immediate challenge for its citizens and their leaders, as well as for the international community, is to contain the impact of the nation’s decline. For all the misery they have experienced, the Venezuelan people have never stopped struggling against misrule. As of this summer, Venezuelans were still staging hundreds of protests each month. Most of them are local, grass-roots affairs with little political leadership, but they show a people with the will to fight for themselves.

Take Back Venezuela With Votes, Not Violence

Is that enough to nudge the country away from its current, grim path? Probably not. Hopelessness is driving more and more Venezuelans to fantasize about a Trump-led military intervention, which would offer a fervently desired deus ex machina for a long-suffering people. But this amounts to an ill-advised revenge fantasy, not a serious strategy.

Rather than a military invasion, Venezuelans’ best hope is to ensure that the flickering embers of protest and social dissent are not extinguished and that resistance to dictatorship is sustained. Desperate though the prospect may seem, this tradition of protest could one day lay the foundations for the recovery of civic institutions and democratic practices. It won’t be simple, and it won’t be quick. Bringing a state back from the brink of failure never is.

 

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New Book: CUBAN FOREIGN POLICY:,Transformation Under Raúl Castro

Edited by H. Michael Erisman and John M. Kirk

This volume illustrates the sweeping changes in Cuban foreign policy under Raúl Castro. Leading scholars from around the world show how the significant shift in foreign policy direction that started in 1990 after the implosion of the Soviet Union has continued, in many ways taking totally unexpected paths—as is shown by the move toward the normalization of relations with Washington. Providing a systematic overview of Cuba’s relations with the United States, Latin America, Russia, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, this book will be invaluable for courses on contemporary Cuban politics.

THE AUTHORS:

Michael Erisman is professor of international affairs at Indiana State University.

John M. Kirk is professor of Latin American studies at Dalhousie University.

 

PUBLICATION DETAILS:

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Pages: 314 • Trim: 6 x 9

978-1-4422-7092-3 • Hardback • April 2018 • $85.00 • (£54.95)

978-1-4422-7093-0 • Paperback • April 2018 • $35.00 • (£23.95)

978-1-4422-7094-7 • eBook • April 2018 • $33.00 • (£22.95)

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. Historical Introduction to Foreign Policy under Raúl Castro, John M. Kirk

Part I: Key Issue Areas

  1. The Defense Contribution to Foreign Policy: Crucial in the Past, Crucial Today
    Hal Klepak,
  2. Cuba’s International Economic Relations: A Macroperspective on Performance and Challenges, H. Michael Erisman
  3. The Evolution of Cuban Medical Internationalism, John M. Kirk

Part II: Cuba’s Regional Relations

5. Cuba and Latin America and the Caribbean, Andrés Serbin
6. Cuba and Africa: Recasting Old Relations in New but Familiar Ways, Isaac Saney
7. Cuba and Asia and Oceania, Pedro Monzón and Eduardo Regalado Florido
8. Cuba and the European Union, Susanne Gratius
9. Cuba, Oceania, and a “Canberra Spring”, Tim Anderson

Part III:Cuba’s Key Bilateral Relations

10. The United States and Cuba, William LeoGrande
11. Canada and Cuba, John M. Kirk and Raúl Rodríguez
12. Spain and Cuba, Joaquín Roy
13. Venezuela and Cuba, Carlos A. Romero
14. Brazil and Cuba, Regiane Nitsch Bressan
15. Russia and Cuba, Mervyn Bain
16. China and Cuba, Andrian H. Hearn and Rafael Hernández

Part IV: Retrospective and Prospective Views

17. Conclusion, H. Michael Erisman and John M. Kirk

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CUBA’S STALLED REVOLUTION

Cuba’s Stalled Revolution: Can New Leadership Unfreeze Cuban Politics After the Castros?

By Richard E. Feinberg and Ted Piccone

 Foreign Affairs, September 2018

Original Article: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/central-america-caribbean/2018-09-20/cubas-stalled-revolution

For Cuba, 2018 marks the end of an era. For the first time in almost six decades, the country’s president is no longer a Castro—neither the late guerilla fighter, revolutionary caudillo, and international icon Fidel, nor his lower-profile brother Raúl, who succeeded Fidel as president in 2008. This April, the mantle was instead passed to former vice-president Miguel Díaz-Canel, a younger post-revolutionary politician who raised paradoxical hopes of both continuity and change.

Yet for those who imagined that the post-Castro era would quickly bring major reforms, Díaz-Canel’s tenure so far has been sorely disappointing. Five months in, progress in the country has come either slowly or not at all. The island’s economy continues to decline, just as it has since the collapse of the Soviet Union nearly 30 years ago, and this despite the carefully calibrated reforms Raul Castro instituted in 2011. Investment rates are alarmingly low, foreign exchange scarce, and shortages of consumer goods widespread. Many discontented Cubans, especially educated youth, continue to emigrate in search of higher living standards and better career choices, depleting the current and future workforce.

Miguel Díaz-Canel 

Reformers and hardliners continue to do battle within the Cuban Communist Party. A new draft constitution promises progress, notably on gender and gay rights, but it also reaffirms the hegemony of the Cuban Communist Party and institutionalizes outdated economic thinking. Recent government initiatives further restrict individual freedoms in business, the arts, and media. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has largely returned to the pre-Obama rhetoric of regime change and posture of hostility and isolation.

STAGNATION NATION

Díaz-Canel has inherited an economy in a state of transition. During his decade-long rule, Raúl Castro broke through once-forbidding ideological barriers on economic policy. He actively inserted Cuba into global commerce, opened the island to foreign investment, and promoted a burgeoning domestic private sector. Raúl also relaxed barriers to travel abroad, allowed private markets for real estate and automobiles, and gradually expanded access to mobile technology and social media. The private sector took off. By 2017, it provided jobs and income to as many as four out of ten Cubans of working age. Tourist traffic rose more than 80 percent during Raul’s tenure. Even though U.S. travelers became less common on the streets of Havana over the course of 2017, as the Obama bump gave way to a Trump dip, tourism is once again the brightest feature of the Cuban economy.

The government has not laid out a new economic policy agenda, much less a strategic vision for long-term development.

And yet, the Cuban economy has performed poorly overall. During the decade of Raúl Castro’s rule, Cuba’s GDP grew an average 2.4 percent per year—at least according to government statistics. At times, GDP growth stagnated at below two percent per year. Five percent would be the minimum necessary for Cuba’s growth to be considered sustainable.

The government has failed to create a truly receptive business climate, and outside the flourishing tourism sector, foreign investors remain skeptical. The precipitous drop in Cuba’s merchandise exports bodes particularly ill, signaling that the country’s state-owned enterprises are failing to compete in global markets. In 2016, these exports shrunk to less than $3 billion, their lowest level in more than ten years. In response, authorities slashed imports, from a peak of nearly $15 billion in 2013 to $10.4 billion in 2016. The loss of these imports has left Cuban stores empty of the most basic consumer items, from beer and paper products to spare parts for household appliances. All the while, restrictions on bringing capital goods into the country continue to exacerbate the already serious lack of factory machinery and farm equipment.

Change is unlikely to materialize soon. The Díaz-Canel administration, occupied with managing austerity policies, has not yet laid out a new economic policy agenda, much less a strategic vision for long-term development. In July, the government issued tough new regulations for the island’s emerging private enterprises. Aimed at preventing private companies and citizens from accumulating wealth—and nipping in the bud any potential challenge to the state’s monopoly on economic and political power—the new rules show that Cuban leaders are still extremely wary of, if not outright hostile to, private enterprise.

OLD RUM IN NEW BOTTLES?

Cuban politics are similarly resistant to change. Raúl Castro is still very present—as head of the Cuban Communist Party until 2021 and as leader of the government’s current efforts to revise the constitution. Every step of the relatively smooth succession process seemed designed to signal continuity with the measured pace of change that had marked Raúl Castro’s tenure, encapsulated by his maxim “sin prisa, pero sin pausa”—without haste, but without pause. It’s no wonder, then, that Díaz-Canel told the national assembly upon donning the presidential sash that “comrade Raúl will head the decisions for the present and future of the nation.”

Díaz-Canel has a lighter touch and is less camera-shy than his predecessor, but when it comes to policymaking, he has so far failed to deliver change. He retains a largely inherited team of senior bureaucrats, and his public remarks have been less about programmatic innovation than about maintaining party unity. Granted, this could be a temporary posture meant to reassure the old party apparatchiks while he builds a more autonomous governing class of technocrats. By this interpretation, the 58-year old is cautiously cultivating a power base of his own to set forward in the later portion of his five-year term, especially after Raúl steps down as party chief in 2021.

On the institutional side, recent changes are a mixed bag. The National Assembly chosen in March includes a mix of old and new faces. More than half of the deputies are new, 53 percent are women, and 41 percent are black or of mixed race. Likewise, the council of state, which is headed by Díaz-Canel and effectively governs the country year-round, has three new vice presidents between the ages of 48 and 52—young leadership for a country long ruled by former revolutionaries in their seventies and older. New rules mandate that deputies serve no more than two five-year terms and enter office at an age no older than 60. Taken together, the changes suggest that party leaders understand the importance of making the benefits of public office accessible to younger cadres and of diversifying the ranks of the governing elite.

A proposed constitutional reform, meanwhile, promises a modest but potentially meaningful political opening. The draft constitution divides power between a president serving as head of state and a prime minister who manages the government’s day-to-day functions. It devolves more autonomy over local affairs to provincial authorities, even though governors would still be appointed by the president. Other provisions suggest greater separation between state and party, even though the overlap in personnel would probably remain high. A new national electoral council would improve the image of the country’s elections, if not their actual integrity. Citizens who gather at least 10,000 signatures can propose legislation. Those who gather 50,000 or more will be able to initiate constitutional revisions.

Even if reformers manage to wedge open some cracks in the state’s monolithic apparatus, Cuba will remain a strictly one-party system.

The draft constitution explicitly grants important civil and due process rights, including habeas corpus, the presumption of innocence, the right to seek restitution for violations committed by state agents, non-discrimination regardless of sexual orientation, and religious liberty. But it makes such fundamental rights conditional upon “collective security, general well-being, respect for public order, the Constitution and laws.” The draft document is rife with such contradictory loopholes that ultimately confirm the state’s supreme power to override fundamental human rights.

Make no mistake: even if reformers manage to wedge open some cracks in the state’s monolithic apparatus, Cuba will remain a strictly one-party system. The draft constitution re-inscribes the Cuban Communist Party as the “superior leading force of [Cuban] society and the state.” Cuban socialism and its political and social system remain “irrevocable.” In the economy, the draft charter complements state planning and ownership with some space for domestic and foreign private capital, but these changes stop well short of formally embracing a more genuinely balanced, hybrid regime, such as the market socialist models of China or Vietnam.

At the moment, the Communist Party is holding forums to debate the draft constitution across the island. These forums are generating discussions among interested elites, but they are expected to yield only modest fixes to the issues outlined above. Once ratified by the legislature and by public referendum—likely easy hurdles—the new constitution will mainly cement the Castro legacy in constitutional, legal and de facto terms, while also bestowing some political legitimacy upon the post-revolutionary cohort Díaz-Canel now leads. For the many Cubans yearning for higher wages and more consumer goods, there is little relief in sight.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Havana’s economic and political inertia has left Washington with little room to elicit more progressive reforms. Either the United States can accept Cuba’s reality and find ways of getting along in order to protect its national interests, or it can maintain and perhaps even step up its efforts to pursue regime change through punitive measures. The latter policy, in place for nearly six decades, has demonstrably failed, but it is unfortunately entrenched in U.S. law, thanks to Congress’ codification of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba in 1996. U.S. President Donald Trump, who has rolled back many of the openings granted by President Obama, has important pro-embargo constituencies in Florida and is unlikely to shift direction any time soon.  In effect, the Miami hardliners have won back the initiative from the diverse anti-embargo constituencies of the Obama era. This is probably fine and well with hardliners in Cuba, as it gives them some breathing space to seek better relations with Europe, Russia and China without Washington in the picture.

The new administration will likely split the country along generational lines.

The United States and Cuba still cooperate in some areas, but such exchanges face significant challenges. U.S. tourism to the island, especially cruise ship travel, is showing signs of recovery, after a sharp decrease in 2017 and in the first half of 2018. Bilateral cooperation in the areas of law enforcement, migration, and environmental affairs continues quietly, but depleted staffing at both U.S. and Cuban embassies, in part due to a wave of mysterious health concerns reported by U.S. diplomats in Cuba last year, has hampered basic diplomatic and consular functions. U.S. congressional activity has stalled, with the exception of efforts to lift financial restrictions on agricultural trade. All told, neither the punishing embargo nor anemic U.S. diplomacy is likely to prod Havana towards more ambitious reforms.

Domestically, the Díaz-Canel administration will likely split the country along generational lines. For many older Cubans, the new government’s commitment to the principles that guided the Castro era is reassuring. Many middle-aged Cubans will welcome the renewed guarantees of state-sponsored economic security and welfare. Some may also perceive glimmers of a more normal, open and, accessible polity, and will take heart in Díaz-Canel’s support for gradual, carefully monitored openings to foreign investment, the internet, and controlled private enterprise. Cuba’s restless youth, on the other hand, are likely to see only more missed opportunities, whether in a constitutional reform that prioritizes continuity over change or in a president who so far has proven more cheerleader for the status quo than agent of reform. Tragically, Cubans of all stripes, including too many of the best and the brightest, will continue to seek opportunities elsewhere.

 

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IS CUBA’S VISION OF MARKET SOCIALISM SUSTAINABLE?

William M. LeoGrande

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Just three months after Miguel Diaz-Canel took over the presidency of Cuba from Raul Castro, his government has unveiled a new Council of Ministers—essentially, Cuba’s Cabinet—along with the draft of a new constitution and sweeping new regulations on the island’s emergent private sector. While the changes announced represent continuity with the basic reform program Raul Castro laid out during his tenure, they are nevertheless significant milestones along the road to a more market-oriented socialist system.

The discussion and approval of the draft constitution was the main event of last week’s National Assembly meeting. The revised charter will now be circulated for public debate, revised, reconsidered by the National Assembly, and then submitted to voters in a referendum early next year. The avowed reason for revamping the constitution is to align it with the economic reforms spelled out in 2011 and 2016 that constitute the blueprint for Cuba’s transition to market socialism. Cuba’s 1976 constitution, adopted at the height of its adherence to a Soviet model of central planning, reflected “historical circumstances, and social and economic conditions, which have changed with the passing of time,” as Raul Castro explained two years ago. …

Continue Reading: Is Cubas Vision of Market Socialism Sustainable_

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GACETA OFICIAL NO. 35 EXTRAORDINARIA, DE 10 DE JULIO DE 2018:

New Regulations for Cuba’s Non-Agricultural Private Enterprises as of July 10, 2018

Complete Document available here:

Gaceta-Oficial-Extraordinaria, 10 de Juliode 2018, _CYMFIL20180710_0001

 

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CUBA MOVES BACKWARDS: NEW REGULATIONS LIKELY TO IMPEDE PRIVATE SECTOR GROWTH.

Brookings, Friday, July 13, 2018

Richard E. Feinberg, Nonresident Senior Fellow – Foreign PolicyLatin America Initiative and Claudia Padrón Cueto, Reporter – El Toque (Havana, Cuba)

In a leap backwards, the Cuban government has published a massive compendium of tough new regulations governing the island’s struggling private enterprises. The new regulations—the first major policy pronouncement during the administration of President Miguel Díaz-Canel—appear more focused on controlling and restricting the emerging private sector than on stimulating investment and job creation, more concerned with capping wealth accumulation than in poverty alleviation.

Many small businesses that cater to foreign visitors are already suffering from Trump-era restrictions and travel warnings that have decimated the U.S. tourist trade in Havana. But the new regulations are more a product of domestic Cuban politics than foreign pressures.

On a positive note, the Cuban government promises to renew the granting of licenses for many categories of private businesses by year-end, repealing the extended suspension announced last summer. But the new regulations greatly empower government rule-makers and intrusive inspectors, casting a gray cloud over the island’s business climate. Many existing businesses are likely to retrench if not close altogether.

The private sector grew dramatically in recent years, to include nearly 600,000 owners and employees by official figures, with many more enterprising Cubans working informally; in contrast, the state sector stagnated and further decapitalized. Indeed, many thriving private businesses began to compete successfully against state entities, notably in restaurants, bars and night clubs, guest houses, construction, and transportation. The healthy wages paid by profitable private firms often eclipsed the meager salaries paid to disgruntled government officials and factory workers.

The extensive, highly detailed regulations, which go into effect in December, read like “the revenge of the jealous bureaucrat.” Drawing on a multitude of ministries and operating at all levels—national, provincial, and municipal—interagency committees will now be empowered to authorize, inspect, and regularly report upon private businesses under their jurisdictions. The regulations are replete with astoundingly specific performance requirements and innumerable legal breaches that seem crafted to allow government officials wide discrimination to impose heavy fines (or extort bribes), suspend licenses, and even seize properties.

To cite but a few such regulations: Private restaurants and guest houses must cook food at a minimum of 70 degrees Celsius for the time required for each food; day care centers must allocate at least two square meters per child, have no more than six children per attendant, and be outfitted with pristine bathroom facilities described in exquisite detail (private schools and academies are strictly prohibited); and private taxi drivers must document that they are purchasing fuel at government gas stations, rather than buying on the black market. Further, local officials can deny new licenses based on “previous analyses,” even if the proposed business plan meets all the other specifications, and can fix prices “when conditions warrant.”

The regulations could help shield state enterprises from unwanted private competition. The very ministries that stand to lose market shares are in charge of approving licenses in their sector. For example, the ministry of tourism has the lead in judging licenses for private guest houses. Appeals are possible, but to administrative authorities, not to judicial courts.

Government agencies are also seeking to reassert control over the island’s vibrant artistic communities. The regulations prohibit artists from contracting directly with private restaurants and bars; rather they must be represented by public-sector entities that charge commissions up to 24 percent of revenues. Moreover, performers must not use “sexist, vulgar or obscene language,” which if enforced could imply the banning of popular hip-hop and reggaeton songs and videos.

Perhaps most telling are the restrictive rules squarely aimed at inhibiting private capital accumulation. In a sharp turn from past practice, Cubans will now only be allowed one license for one business, effectively outlawing franchising and diversification. Capacity at restaurants and bars is capped at 50 guests. Most biting, the new regulations establish an upward-sloping wage scale (whereby wages rise as more workers are hired); hiring more than 20 workers becomes prohibitively expensive (six times the average wage). Unlike in the past, employers will now have to pay taxes on the first five workers hired as well.

Many private businesses must also record their transactions (revenues and expenditures) in an account at a government financial institution and keep three months of prospective taxes on deposit. Intended to reduce under-reporting of income, this measure will significantly raise the effective rates of taxation. Investors must also explain their sources of funds. In a country where political authority is unchecked, these financial impositions alone will discourage many potential entrepreneurs.

The Cuban authorities have repeatedly asserted their interest in attracting foreign investment, to compensate for weak domestic savings. However, foreign investors are likely to view these new regulations, even though they apply to domestically-owned firms, as indicative of an official wariness if not hostility toward private enterprise in general. Risk-averse foreign investors will also note that the Cuban government is quite capable of precipitously altering the rules of the game.

The new regulations are the first major policy initiative promulgated during the administration of President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Many of the resolutions were approved by the Council of State under Raúl Castro, prior to Díaz-Canel’s inauguration in April, but nevertheless were issued during his young tenure. Not a good sign for those hoping that Díaz-Canel, 58 years old and ostensibly representing a younger generation, might quickly place his own imprimatur over the extensive state apparatus.

The new regulations make one thing abundantly clear: The Cuban government, state-owned enterprises and the ruling Cuban Communist Party do not want to risk major competition to their own interests—economic, commercial, and political—from a potentially capital-rich, diversified emerging private sector. Apparently, perceived interests in security and stability have overruled Cuba’s own declared economic development goals.

 

 

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CUBA IMPOSES MORE TAXES AND CONTROLS ON PRIVATE SECTOR AND INCREASES CENSORSHIP ON THE ARTS

BY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES

Miami Herald, July 10, 2018 07:01 PM

The Cuban government announced that it will start issuing licenses to open new businesses — frozen since August 2017 — but established greater controls through measures intended to prevent tax evasion, limit wealth and give state institutions direct control over the ‘self-employment’ sector

Original Article: TAXES, CONTROLS, CENSORSHIP

The Cuban government issued new measures on Monday to limit the accumulation of wealth by Cubans who own private businesses on the island. The provisions stipulate that Cubans may own only one private enterprise, and impose higher taxes and restrictions on a spectrum of self-employment endeavors, including the arts.

The government announced that it will start issuing licenses to open new businesses — frozen since last August — but established greater controls through a package of measures intended to prevent tax evasion, limit wealth and give state institutions direct control over the so-called cuentapropismo or self-employment sector.

The measures will not be immediately implemented. There is a 150-day waiting period to “effectively implement” the new regulations, the official Granma newspaper reported.

Cubans who run private restaurants known as paladares, for example, will not be able to rent a room in their home to tourists since no citizen can have more than one license for self-employment.

“There are workers who have a cafeteria and at the same time have a manicure or car wash license. … That is not possible. In practice, he is an owner who has many businesses, and that is not the essence and the spirit of the TCP [self-employment], which consists of workers exercising their daily activities,” Marta Elena Feitó Cabrera, vice minister for labor and social security, told the official Cubadebate site.

About 9,000 people, half in Havana, are affected by the measure, said the official.

In addition, all private sector workers must open an account in a state bank to carry out all their business operations. And the boteros, those who work as private taxi drivers, must present receipts to justify all their deductible expenses. Other measures curb the hiring of workers in the private sector, which currently employs 591,456 people, or 13 percent of the country’s workforce.

The government also stated it would eliminate the tax exemption for businesses that have up to five employees and would instead impose a sliding scale that increases with each worker hired. It also ordered an increase in the required minimum monthly taxes of businesses in various categories.

Government officials quoted by Granma said that the measures will increase tax collection and reduce fraud. But economists have warned that more taxes on hiring employees could dramatically hamper the development of the private sector at a critical moment. A monetary reform — which could bankrupt nearly half of the state companies, potentially leaving thousands unemployed — is expected to happen soon.
The new measures also maintain a halt on new licenses for things such as “seller vendor of soap” and “wholesaler of agricultural products,” among others.

One significant provision states that those who rent their homes to tourists and nationals may also rent to Cuban or foreign companies but “only for the purpose of lodging.” That would presumably prevent renters from subletting units.

The “rearrangement” of self-employment, as the new measures were framed in the official media, reduces licenses by lumping together various elements of one industry while limiting another. For example, while there would be only one license for all beauty services, permits for “gastronomic service in restaurants, gastronomic service in a cafeteria, and bar service and recreation” were separated — meaning that one can own a restaurant but not also a bar.

To increase controls, each authorized activity will be under the supervision of a state ministry, in addition to the municipal and provincial government entities, which can intervene to set prices. The level of control reaches such extremes that the Official Gazette published a table with classifications on the quality of public restrooms and the leasing rates that would have to be paid by “public bathroom attendants,” one of the authorized self-employment categories. Some public bathrooms are leased by the state to individuals who then are responsible for upkeep and make their money by charging users a fee.

The regulations are the first significant measures announced by the government since Miguel Díaz-Canel was selected as the island’s new president in April. But the proposed regulations had been in the making for months by different government agencies, according to a draft of the measures previously obtained by el Nuevo Herald. The announcement comes just as the Cuban economy is struggling to counter the losses brought by the crisis in Venezuela — its closest ally — and the deterioration of relations with the United States.

The new measures could also have a significant impact on the cultural sector. The decree may be used by the Ministry of Culture to increase control over artists and musicians and impose more censorship in the country.

Decree 349 of 2018 establishes fines and forfeitures, as well as the possible loss of the self-employment license, to those who hire musicians to perform concerts in private bars and clubs as well as in state-owned venues without the authorization of the Ministry of Culture or the state agencies that provide legal representation to artists and musicians.

Many artists in urban genres such as reggaeton and hip-hop, who have been critical of the Cuban government, do not hold state permits to perform in public. However, many usually perform in private businesses or in other venues.

Painters or artists who sell their works without state authorization also could be penalized.

The measures impose sanctions on private businesses or venues that show “audiovisuals” — underground reggaeton videos or independent films, for example — that contain violence, pornography, “use of patriotic symbols that contravene current legislation,” sexist or vulgar language and “discrimination based on skin color, gender, sexual orientation, disability and any other injury to human dignity.”

The government will also sanction state entities or private businesses that disseminate music or allow performances “in which violence is generated with sexist, vulgar, discriminatory and obscene language.”

Even books are the target of new censorship: Private persons, businesses and state enterprises may not sell books that have “contents that are harmful to ethical and cultural values.”

Some CuentaPropistas:

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CUBA, SÍ, VENEZUELA, NO? A DOUBLE STANDARD IN FOREIGN POLICY

BOTH LATIN AMERICAN STATES REPRESS THEIR CITIZENS AND HAVE LITTLE REGARD FOR HUMAN RIGHTS, SO WHY HAVE THEY RECEIVED SUCH DIFFERENT TREATMENT FROM CANADA AND OTHERS? 

BY:  YVON GRENIER, JUNE 21, 2018

 Original Article: Cuba, Sí, Venezuela, No?

For years the Trudeau government has been exceptionally forceful in its condemnation of Nicolas Maduro’s budding dictatorship in Venezuela.

Canada imposed sanctions last September on key figures in the Maduro regime “to send a clear message that their anti-democratic behaviour has consequences.” In advance of April’s Summit of the Americas, Canada supported the announcement by host country Peru that Maduro would not be welcome to attend. In Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s words: “Maduro’s participation at a hemispheric leaders’ summit would have been farcical.”

Freeland then characterized Maduro’s re-election on May 20 as “illegitimate and anti-democratic,” with Canada announcing further sanctions on key figures in the Maduro regime on May 30. The Organization of American States also passed a June 5 resolution that calls for an extraordinary assembly to vote on suspending Venezuela from the 34-member organization. Furthermore, Canada will not seek to replace its ambassador in Caracas, which amounts to suspending normal diplomatic relations. And most recently, in a speech at a Foreign Policy event June 13 in Washington, Freeland made a point of mentioning the country, saying that “some democracies have gone in the other direction and slipped into authoritarianism, notably and tragically Venezuela.”

The three main parties in Ottawa are strangely in lockstep to denounce the “erosion of democracy” in that once prosperous and democratic nation. But the Trudeau government is particularly combative. This is a strong contrast to our policy toward the only country in the region that is arguably a worse offender of democratic rights: Cuba. For if “Canada will not stand by silently as the Government of Venezuela robs its people of their fundamental democratic rights,” its policy toward Cuba has studiously been to stand by silently as the Castro brothers and now President Miguel Díaz-Canel robs the Cuban people of their fundamental democratic rights.

Comparing the state of democracy and human rights

The kind of elections held on May 20 in Venezuela, while clearly unfree and unfair, would represent a positive step toward pluralism in the one-party system of communist Cuba. For one, Maduro banned his main opponents from running, but he did allow two marginal opponents to campaign and compete for the presidency. Neither the Castro brothers nor Díaz-Canel ever had to run against anybody. For decades they were appointed unanimously by a rubber-stamp legislature completely controlled by the only party allowed in the country. Arbitrary detentions, total control of all branches of government by the executive, and violation of democratic rights are systematic and written into law on the island.

While Maduro is accused of violating the constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, his Cubans counterparts do not need to disregard their 1976 constitution to trample democratic rights; its template is the USSR’s constitution of 1936 (imposed there under the leadership of Joseph Stalin). Cubans visiting Venezuela are pleasantly surprised at how relatively free the media and Internet access are compared to the reality at home. Monitoring organizations such as The Economist Intelligence Unit, Reporters without Borders and Freedom House rank Cuba lower than Venezuela in their indexes of democracy, press freedom, and civil and political rights.

True, violent repression in Cuba is not as overt as it has been recently in the patria of Bolivar, where up to 160 civilians were killed by government forces during the massive street protests of last summer. Arguably, this is because Cuba is a more stable dictatorship, one that has already exported most of its opposition overseas. Short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights activists, independent journalists and dissonant artists appear sufficient to curb public criticism. Incidentally, the number of such arrests “have increased dramatically in recent years” according to Human Rights Watch. The dissident Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reports 5,155 such detentions in 2017. As Venezuela becomes more totalitarian, and more of its aggrieved citizens rush to the exit, it will conceivably experience lower levels of violence and unrest. To recall: in the wake of the 1959 revolution, violent clashes with the “counter-revolutionary” opposition lingered on until mid-1965 in Cuba — Fidel Castro had become a master of counter-insurgency.

According to some observers, the humanitarian situation may be worse in Venezuela, primarily because of rapidly deteriorating access to food and medicine. But then again, it is hard to measure and compare. The Cuban government does not produce statistics on poverty on the island. We know most Cubans are very poor, especially if they don’t have access to remittances regularly sent by their family in exile, a source of income not (yet) available to most Venezuelans.

In other words, while the situation may be worse in some respects in Venezuela, the difference in criticism from outside those countries can be in no way because of Cuba’s superior “democratic behaviour.”

A Cuban fascination versus a newer crisis

And yet, under Trudeau, Canada’s relations with communist Cuba have returned to their former glory. Seasoned advocate of ever-closer Canada-Cuba relations, professor John Kirk, recently waxed eloquent at a conference in Barcelona about a newly found “warm embrace” between the two countries, with increased investments, cultural ties, and exchange of high-ranking government ministers in both directions. The Canadian government, according to its approach presented online, is about “unlocking opportunities” and trade, not about sanctions and denunciations of undemocratic practices.

Contrast Freeland’s comments on Maduro to Trudeau famously saying, in his statement on the death of Fidel, “on behalf of all Canadians,” that “Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people.”

When CBC News senior parliamentary reporter Catherine Cullen asked Trudeau whether he believes Castro was a dictator, Trudeau tepidly replied: “Yes.” Yet he sends very mixed messages and seems to prefer overlooking the darker side of the Cuban regime.

One can think of several plausible explanations for this discrepancy, starting with the Trudeau family and its strange fascination with Fidel. Comparisons with US President Donald Trump’s man crush for Vladimir Putin come to mind. One cannot help but wonder if Freeland’s silence on Cuba (it would be a shoe-in addition to her Putin-Maduro axis of evil) is a concession made to the boss.

Other explanations, inter alia: Venezuela is (still) an OAS member, unlike Cuba, though if memory serves, Canada and other principled guardians of the OAS Democratic Charter are invariably sanguine about welcoming Cuba back to the hemispheric fold. Perhaps hostility toward communist Cuba is now perceived as an outmoded residue of the Cold War. Venezuela is a post-Cold War failing state, driven to the ground by a clumsy heir of Hugo Chávez, with no Bay of Pigs or even embargo (the US purchases most of Venezuela’s oil) as convenient excuses.

The most credible justification for such double standards is that Venezuela is in the midst of a crisis, with lots of moving parts, rather than being fully constituted (or ossified) like Cuba, where it is too late for pressures to work. The island fully “slipped into authoritarianism” — just as Freeland described Venezuela recently — in 1952 and then into totalitarianism in the 1960s. Former US President Barack Obama’s rationale for opening up to Cuba was ostensibly that the US tried to topple the regime for longer than he lived, and repeatedly failed. Venezuela is still in flux, increasingly isolated in the region and the world, and consequently, amenable to change under international pressure. Maybe.

Cuba’s impact on Venezuela

Be that as it may, Canada would be well advised to consider the responsibility of Cuban leaders in the current crisis in Venezuela. Cuban infiltration of Venezuelan state institutions is complete, as Cuban “advisers” can be found in virtually every single office, ministry or barrack of the Venezuelan state. Meanwhile, millions of Venezuelan oil dollars (even foreign oil bought by Venezuela and gifted to Cuba) flow into Cuba’s coffers. Venezuela had been an obsession of Fidel’s since the early 1960s and turning the country into a Cuban ally was his greatest foreign policy accomplishment. His smaller and poorer country astonishingly managed to infiltrate what is after all a larger and richer country. When Chávez declared in 2007 that Cuba and Venezuela were a “single nation” with a “one single government,” he was not kidding.

So, in other words, Canada is excoriating Venezuela for trying to emulate a country Canada is proud to have sunny relations with. To be provocative: would the Canadian government like Maduro more if he, like Cuban leaders, banned competitive elections altogether and closed the borders?

Leaving aside the complementary but separate discussion on what policy is best for Canada, one can at least say this: if Canada continues to pick its human rights policies à la carte, raging against violations in one country and glossing over possibly worse ones next door, the world may notice and take neither Canada’s principled position nor its not-so-principled position seriously. And if global consistency is too much to ask (after all, Canada seems to get along fine with China, Saudi Arabia, etc.), at least some regional evenness or just an explanation would be most welcome.

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CUBA TO UPDATE SOVIET-ERA CONSTITUTION, ADAPTING TO REFORMS

By ANDREA RODRIGUEZ,

 ASSOCIATED PRESS, HAVANA, May 28, 2018

 Original Article: CONSTITUTIONAL UPDATE

 When Cuba adopted its current constitution, the sugar-based economy was being bolstered by aid from the Soviet Union, citizens were forbidden to run private businesses or sell homes and gays kept their sexual identity a tightly guarded secret.

Now a rewrite is on the way as the country’s communist leaders try to adapt to the post-Soviet world in which hundreds of thousands of Cubans work for themselves, American remittances and tourism keep the economy afloat and the daughter of Communist Party chief Raul Castro is campaigning for gay rights.

The country’s parliament is scheduled on Saturday to name the commission to draft a new constitution, consulting with the citizenry and eventually bringing it to a referendum.

Officials have made clear that the constitution will maintain a Communist Party-led system in which freedom of speech, the press and other rights are limited by “the purposes of socialist society.” But Castro and other leaders apparently hope to end the contradictions between the new, more open economy and a legal system that calls for tight state control over all aspects of the economy and society.

The current ban on dual citizenship collides with the government’s effort to reach out to exiles. The definition of marriage as between a man and a woman runs up against Cuba’s growing gay rights movement. Many small businesses employ workers even though the constitution now forbids “obtaining income that comes from exploiting the work of others.”

The current constitution allows worker cooperatives, but only in the farm sector, and officials have allowed other types of cooperative but placed sharp limits on their growth and operations, keeping them as a marginal economic player.

The government, too, is likely to see changes. Castro, who turned over the presidency last month to Miguel Diaz-Canel, has proposed limiting presidents to two five-year terms and imposing an age limit — a dramatic shift following a nearly 60-year run of leadership by Castro and his late brother Fidel, who both ruled into their 80s.

“Cuba needs to change its constitution because our society has been radically transformed in recent years,” said political scientist Lenier Gonzalez, one of the directors of Cuba Possible, a think-tank aimed at promoting reform with the limits laid out by Cuban law and its single-party system. He noted the society has become more international, forms of property ownership have diversified and new social movements have emerged that now exist on the margins of the law.

He also said the revamp could help build the legitimacy of Diaz-Canel, 58, and other members of the new guard who are finally replacing the men enshrined as national heroes of the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro.

The Communist Party newspaper Granma has reported that the new constitution could boost the role of the country’s parliament, which now usually meets for two days a year to listen to speeches and approve official proposals. It said the congress might be professionalized and its membership trimmed. The 605 deputies now receive no pay other than what they get from their other jobs.

Parliamentarian Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raul and director of the Center of Sexual Education, has said the reform will expand gay rights, partly by tackling the current wording of the constitution that limits marriage to a man and woman.

The current constitution was adopted four decades ago at a time when Cuba was a potential Cold War flashpoint and a pillar of the Soviet Bloc. The document proclaims Cuba’s adherence to Marxist-Leninist socialism and to solidarity with countries of the Third World, particularly Latin America. The Communist Party is described as the “superior guiding force” of Cuba’s society and it says the economic system is “based on socialist property of the entire people over the fundamental means of production and on the suppression of the exploitation of man by man.”

“It is a historic constitution, the only one that remains in our hemisphere” from the time of Soviet-style socialism, said Julio Antonio Fernandez Estrada, a law professor at the University of Havana. “It’s more than 40 years old … It continues speaking of things that now do not exist in the world, such as the formation of the citizen for communism.”

He said the economic reforms promoted by Castro, which sought to allow the limited introduction of private enterprise within the communist system, “have been carried out, if not against, then in large part in spite of the constititution.”

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CUBA’S NEW LEADER PRAISES MADURO IN ‘SOLIDARITY’ VISIT TO VENEZUELA

REUTERS, WORLD NEWS, MAY 30, 2018

Deisy BuitragoAndreina Aponte

Original Article: President Miguel Diaz-Canel Praises Maduro

CARACAS (Reuters) – Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel flew to Caracas on Wednesday for his first foreign trip as head of state, a show of solidarity for Venezuela President Nicolas Maduro, whose controversial re-election this month has drawn condemnation in the West.

“I pledge to you that no matter how big the challenges, you can count on Cuba today and forever,” Diaz-Canel said after meeting Maduro in the Miraflores presidential palace. “Venezuela now needs our solidarity,” he earlier told Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly, a pro-government legislative super-body.

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro speaks next to Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel during their meeting at the Miraflores Palace in Caracas, Venezuela May 30, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The United States, the European Union and major Latin American countries have condemned Maduro’s May 20 re-election, saying it did not meet democratic standards.

Two of his rivals were barred from standing and the election board is run by loyalists. The U.S. government imposed new sanctions on the crisis-stricken oil exporter.

But China and Russia have warned against meddling in the Socialist-run country, and fellow leftist governments in the region from Cuba to Bolivia have offered their support.

“Your words express the best of the Cuban people and we are forever grateful for the support you have given us,” said Delcy Rodriguez, a senior Maduro ally who heads the Assembly, which critics say has undermined the opposition-controlled legislature, the National Assembly.

Maduro was the first foreign leader to meet with Diaz-Canel last month after he succeeded Raul Castro to become president of the Communist-run island.

Venezuela, which holds the world’s largest oil reserves, exchanges crude for Cuban medical and other technical services, though deliveries have dropped in recent years during an economic implosion in the country of 30 million people.

“We felt (Maduro’s) victory as our own,” Diaz-Canel said. “Venezuela has supported Cuba in many ways throughout its history. We have a debt of gratitude.”

Venezuelan opposition politicians say bilateral relations with Cuba are deeply unfavorable.  “Maduro did not sell the country, he handed it over. NATIONAL SHAME!” tweeted opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido, posting a picture of Diaz-Canel wearing a sash with the yellow blue and red Venezuelan colors on Wednesday.

Diaz-Canel flew to Venezuela with his wife Liz Cuesta as first lady, in a break with custom during the nearly 60 years’ rule by the Castro brothers Fidel and Raul who generally traveled without their spouses.

Diaz-Canel’s visit came as Cuban authorities faced the chaos of flooding in the wake of Subtropical Storm Alberto that has killed already four people and prompted the evacuation of tens of thousands.

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