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Loro Horta, the Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste to Cuba. He is a graduate of the U.S Naval Post Graduate School, the United States National Defence University.
Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Cuba: Hard Times in Paradise 

Cuba’s three key revenues of exports, tourism and remittances hit by Covid-19.


HAVANA -- The people of Cuba are no strangers to hardship. From three centuries of Spanish negligent and oppressive colonization, to decades of American sponsored corrupt dictators, to 61 years of crippling  US sanctions. The Cuban people have seen it all. The most difficult period in the island’s recent history was in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Deprived of its benefactor, the Cuban economy shrunk by 30 percent and lost 70 percent of its foreign trade. The period ,1991-2000, became known as the periodo especial en tiempos de paz  (special period under peace conditions). While the situation began to improve in the early 2000s, the country continued to face economic difficulties caused in large part by U.S sanctions. However, Cubans remained always optimistic. Whenever the situation got tough, Cubans would reply “We survived the special period. What can we not survive?”

However, the last two years have been hard on the Cuban people, with one setback after another. One of the most hopeful periods in the island’s recent history was during the last two years of the Obama administration . President Obama’s visit to Cuba in March 2016 raised hopes and expectations of reconciliation with America.

Unfortunately this marvelous period of hope did not last long. In June 2017 in a speech in Miami President Donald Trump announced he was reverting his predecessor’s policy and would impose harsher sanctions. Meanwhile Venezuela, Cuba’s closest ally, plunged into a severe economic crisis and was no longer able to provide its generous assistance - particularly oil, reducing its oil shipments to Cuba by 80 percent.  This forced Cuba to obtain its oil in the international market, spending its precious foreign currency reserves. With the coming to power of right-wing governments in Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and several other small Central American countries, Cuba  found itself surrounded by hostile neighbors. In early 2019 Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro expelled 8,000 Cuban doctors from Brazil. Bolivia soon followed, expelling 700 Cuban doctors.  Cuba is estimated to have lost US$900 million a year in revenues.  This in turn led to the Cuban government having difficulties paying foreign companies for their products, most importantly food imports such as paltry. By 2019 fuel shortages and of certain food products became common. Food shortages are further aggravated by an ongoing draught that affects particularly the eastern provinces where most of the agricultural sector is located.

With the deteriorating situation on the island the U.S government began to apply fines on shipping companies who dare transport oil to Cuba and restricted the sums of remittances Cuban migrants in the US can send to their families. Pressure is also being applied on European companies not to invest in Cuba.  U.S- Cuban relations have in the past two year reach levels of tension not seen since the Cold War.  Mother nature further added to the island’s trouble with a draught that has lasted for over two years

When Cubans thought things couldn’t get any worse, on March 11, 2020 Cuba reported its first cases of COVID-19.  Tourism, Cuba’s second major source of income, was immediately hit. Hotels are now closed and Cuba’s idyllic beaches deserted.

Cuba’s economy depends on three main sources -- export of services (mainly medical doctors abroad), tourism and remittances. All three sectors have been severely affected. For a country with a chronic shortage of foreign currency the situation cannot be underestimated, particularly at a time when a new generation of leaders must show their metal.

Cuba’s young new President Miguel Diaz-Canel has managed the situation in a firm and diligent way. Raul Castro has rarely appeared in public in the past year, showing that a new generation is increasingly in control.  Cuba’s competent health service and well-organized emergency response system -- a result of 61 years of confrontations with the world’s most powerful nation -- has so far managed the COVID-19 outbreak fairly well. Despite the country’s numerous challenges Cuba has sent doctors to Italy and Spain where they received a hero’s welcome. Cuban doctors have also been sent  to several Caribbean islands to help with the pandemic. All in all, Cuban doctors were sent to 19 countries across the world to help fight the pandemic.  While the U.S government has asked countries not to accept Cuban help, the desperate needs of these nations  makes such requests unrealistic and bizarre.

If the intention of the current U.S administration in increasing the pressure on Cuba was to weaken its government and foment instability, it seems so far to have had the opposite effect .  Cuba’s new  leaders are showing that they are as capable of facing off to their great neighbor to the north as well as their predecessors. Cuba’s old friend Russia has re-emerged as the island’s main ally, supplying the oil Venezuela can no longer offer. China has also gained a major presence. Since May 3, COVID-19 cases have been on the decline. As of May 9 there were 1,754 cases of CVID- 19 on the island and 73 deaths.

However, the country will take a long time to recover. Tourists are unlikely to return in large numbers until next year. Meanwhile, the Cuban Diaspora in the United States, even if restrictions on remittances are relaxed, has suffered great economic hardship as a result of the pandemic and can send insignificant amounts. Despite all this, Cubans retain their optimism and natural happiness.  As the Cuban saying goes: Los Cubanos se rien de sus proprias desgracias (Cubans laugh  at their own misfortune).

Loro Horta is the Ambassador of the Democratic Republic of Timor Leste to Cuba. He is a graduate of the U.S Naval Post Graduate School, the United States National Defence University and he is also  a graduate of the Chinese National Defence University senior officers course. The views expressed here are strictly his own.


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