June 17, 2017


Trump's Strange Retreat from Cuba : More smoke than fire, Trump's new policy could still derail an island's fragile turn toward the future. (MICHAEL GRUNWALD June 17, 2017, Politico)

Bendixen & Amandi also polled Cuban nationals in 2015, and what they found echoed the grumbling we heard last week on the ground: Cubans are down on their government. This is partly because of repression--short-term detentions of dissidents are on the rise, while dissident blogs (as well as porn) are blocked on the Internet--but mostly because of the lousy state-run economy. More than two thirds of Cubans said they were satisfied with their health care system--my father-in-law had to visit a clinic, and got excellent treatment plus prescription drugs at zero cost--but only two fifths were satisfied with their political system, and just one fifth with their economic system. And that was before the Venezuelan economy totally collapsed, depriving Cuba of its ideologically driven subsidies. The poll also found that 70 percent of Cubans would like to open a business, something they can only do now if they get a license to pursue one of 201 government-approved professions, ranging from "disposable lighter repair" to "piƱata maker/seller" to "button coverer."

We got a sense of that entrepreneurial spirit when we knocked on the door of my father-in-law's childhood home in Camaguey, a once-prosperous agricultural center with maze-like streets supposedly designed to confuse the pirates who periodically preyed on locals. It's not prosperous anymore, and the woman who answered the door told us the house has been subdivided into a dozen or so modest apartments. (We later found one that was less modest and newly renovated; unsurprisingly, the owners were a military officer and a government official.) Hers included the home's grand foyer, which still had the original pink-and-green floral tile, but was now a bit grimy because she makes some money by charging commuters to park their bicycles there during business hours. "We all do what we can to live," she told us.

In Old Havana, a similarly entrepreneurial taxi driver named Lazaro gave us a ride in his 1955 Crown Victoria; his grandfather, a chauffeur, had inherited the car from a sugar-baron client who fled Cuba after the revolution. Lazaro had spent five years as a nurse in Venezuela, but realized he could make more money driving tourists at home; he said his business really took off with female clients after he painted the Crown Vic pink. He said he recently made $800 in three days when his car was used in the film Fast and Furious 8, which sounded impressive, except he said a pal had made $80,000 by letting the moviemakers drive his own vintage car into Havana Harbor. Even better, his pal had salvaged the wreck and repaired it to working condition.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and Cuba is full of necessity; one Camaguey woman was selling pigeon eggs out of her foyer. There are certainly glimmers of a private economy that didn't exist a decade ago. Airbnb reports its bookings have funneled $40 million to ordinary Cubans since 2015. Families are running restaurants out of their homes that seem less likely to serve bread that tastes like cardboard or "beef" made from horsemeat. Data mules go door-to-door selling external hard drives known as "paquetes" that provide a week worth of news, films and TV dramas for Cubans without Internet access. And it's no surprise that 96 percent of Cubans told Bendixen & Amandi that more tourism would benefit Cuba, because many of those approved professions--from bike-taxi drivers to "habaneras" who dress up in colonial garb to pose for photos--depend on visitors.

Still, the monopoly force of the government hovers over the private economy. The police confiscate the bike taxis of drivers caught pedaling their customers the wrong way on one-way streets. Cubans can rent out their property, but they're not allowed to own multiple properties. My father-in-law, Humberto Dominguez, an Orlando-area family doctor who is one of those communist-hating, Trump-supporting Cuban exiles, was favorably impressed with the rare-in-the-tropics cleanliness and safety of Cuba's streets, until I reminded him that police states tend to be pretty good about that kind of thing.

Anyway, most of Cuba's economy is still a government-run system that simply doesn't work. Communist-controlled stores tend to be laughably overstaffed--usually by sales associates who betray no interest in sales--and undersupplied. We saw an appliance store with only one brand of refrigerator, a medical-supply store that carried only towels and laundry detergent, and a massive window display for a home furnishings store that featured just one pinkish vase in the corner. We met a bookstore manager who seemed genuinely distraught about the turgid revolutionary tracts and anti-American propaganda she had to sell. Her shelves included only one American author, the leftist Naomi Klein.

In many ways, normalization hasn't lived up to the hype. Obama allowed Americans credit card companies to do business in Cuba, but most haven't. The opening was supposed to upgrade Cuba's dismal telecom infrastructure and bring Internet to the masses, but that hasn't happened either. The tentative steps toward engagement between American and Cuban diplomats have slowed, as both sides have waited to see what the Trump era would bring. Still, the opening has generated some positive economic activity, even though the negatives of the Venezuelan meltdown have overshadowed it. Former Miami congressman Joe Garcia, who spent years shaming political deviants from the hard-line exile position as director of the Cuban American National Foundation, has become a political deviant himself; he no longer believes that isolating Cuba will do any good for the Cuban people.

"We've seen more change in the last two years than we had seen in the last 50," Garcia said. "Obviously it's not enough change. But at least now you can get a croqueta in Havana and have a decent chance there will be real ham in it."

Posted by at June 17, 2017 4:11 PM