A Hardline on Cuba Helps the Communist Party

By Benjamin Waddell*

Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES – In 2015 President Barack Obama committed to opening up relations with Cuba. His administration reduced economic sanctions, facilitated tourism to the island, and made it easier for Cuban-Americans to send money home to loved ones.

Upon taking office in 2017, Donald Trump quickly reversed Obama’s historic détente with the Cuban government. First, he tightened the economic vice grip on Cuba by restoring the main tenets of the economic blockade that President Kennedy initiated in 1962. Then, he drastically restricted the flow of US travel to the island while clamping down on the legal flow of remittances. Finally, just prior to leaving office, Trump added Cuba back to the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump’s government aimed to deny “the Castro regime the resources it uses to oppress its people at home, and to counter its malign interference in Venezuela and the rest of the Western Hemisphere.”

Despite these efforts, empirical research reveals that cutting off relations with Cuba may actually strengthen local support for the Cuban government. My own time on the island confirms this notion.

Here’s why.

An Internal Blockade

Outside of Guira de Melena.

Between 2015 and 2017 I traveled to Cuba 5 times. During my stays, I talked with countless locals about the impact of US sanctions. Many spoke about the negative consequences that the economic blockade had on the country’s economy. However, to my surprise, the men and women I met also explained how economic and political sanctions helped the communist party.

A middle-aged history professor turned tour guide named Javier was the first to clue me in to what appeared to be a common-held belief in Cuba. Javier quit his job as a history teacher shortly after his daughter was born, because he simply couldn’t make ends meet on his $35 a month salary. He begrudgingly reinvented himself as a tour guide, which allows him to pull in an average of $250 a month. He disliked his work, but when it came to issues of politics and history, Javier spoke with conviction.

“If the US really wanted to end the Communist Party, they could,” Javier told me. “All they’d have to do is open the economy. The whole thing would collapse because what we have here is an internal blockade. Fidel survived all those years because the US kept trying to undermine him. Without an outside aggressor, people would have questioned Fidel.”

Covering up government shortcomings

To emphasize his point, Javier placed his index finger on his temple and said, “An internal blockade, brother. That’s our biggest barrier. Our leaders blame everything that goes wrong like poor transportation, lack of medicine, and low paying jobs on the US. And they’re not entirely wrong, but it’s an excuse too. They cover up their own shortcomings with the blockade. Without the economic sanctions, things are going change. But if they bring back the sanctions, we’ll go right back to where we were.”

A Soviet tractor.

Javier and I were staying at an agricultural cooperative just outside Güira de Melena, which was once the center of Cuba’s agricultural revolution. But since 1990, when the USSR collapsed, the area’s production quickly dwindled as Soviet markets disappeared, and many young, able-bodied men and women migrated to the US.

That afternoon, as Javier and I walked toward town, I stared out at the largely uncultivated fields, where dozens of Soviet-era tractors sat in heaps of rust. A few minutes later, near the main store, we met a woman named Mercedes, who told me, “Every family in town has someone who has left for the US. And the money they send home is what we survive on.”

New homes thanks to remittances

As we walked back toward the cooperative, Javier pointed out new two-story homes peppered throughout the outlying neighborhoods.

“Homes like these are all financed by remittances,” Javier explained. “But to keep your property, you have to be on good terms with the party.”

One of the homes built with remittances from abroad.

Javier talked in detail about the fragile relationship between private enterprise, and the communist party. Still, as he noted, eventually private business owners would be more powerful than the government.

“But that day will only come if the US continues to roll back sanctions,” he said.

Javier’s voice drowned in and out as he competed with a pair of Russian-model fighter jets from a nearby air force base that were cutting through the warm evening air overhead. We walked back in silence, accompanied by the sound of unharvested sugar cane rustling in the wind.

A Cultivated field in Guira de Melena.

Later that week, I sat with Javier, and my students, beneath a small outcrop with a lone television to watch the government announce the United States’ decision to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Javier cried as the broadcaster announced the decision.

“This will change everything,” Javier said. “Now the government won’t have any more excuses. They will have to give way to change.”

And for a fleeting moment, Javier’s emotional prophecy appeared to be true. Over the next year, tourists from the US rushed in to capture as many photos as they could of what appeared to be the last bastion of the Cold War. Cuban-American families living in the US, many of whom had never returned since leaving, traveled home to visit loved ones. And fueled by historic flows of remittances and cash from tourism, semi-private businesses began to pop up around the island. And then, Raul Castro announced the impossible, he was stepping down as president to allow for elections.

Cuba, it seemed, had turned over a new leaf.

Enter Donald Trump

The Trump administration immediately moved to undue Obama’s progressive polices toward Cuba. They restricted travel and remittances flows to the island, removed key personnel from the US Embassy in La Havana, and pressured allies to stop doing business with the Cuban government.

Suddenly, it felt as if the Cold War had never ended at all. And just as Javier predicted back in 2015, the draconian policies didn’t weaken the Cuban government, they strengthened it. Cut off from the largest market in the world, everyday Cubans like Javier and his family turned back to the Communist Party.

As alternative forms of income began to dry up around the island, who could blame them?

*Benjamin Waddell is a Havana Times guest writer

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.


12 thoughts on “A Hardline on Cuba Helps the Communist Party

  • November 7, 2021 at 11:44 am
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    As a tourist it was clear to me that this is one of the most important industries keeping the country afloat BUT…. at the expense of all of the other well educated and highly important to the country’s well being, occupations.
    You can’t steal all of the trades people for resorts, you can’t have the brain trust, teachers, doctors, veterinarians becoming tour bus drivers and not expect the country to suffer.
    Things do need to change for the better in Cuba soon, this cannot be maintained. They have free medical care but medicine is hard to come by, free education but no jobs that pay a living wage and if it did, there is little food to buy.
    I feel embarrassed to go there as a tourist right now (despite the difficulties caused by Covid), I feel embarrassed to sit in a resort and have my choice of food to eat and all of the comforts when the average person is going hungry. There is no easy answer. The US sanctions and a poor example of Socialism…..it’s hurting the country.

  • February 12, 2021 at 9:16 am
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    Exactly life won’t get better until the communists are replaced.

    Only problem the communists don’t care how bad it gets for the Cuban population they are unelected royalty.

  • February 9, 2021 at 12:01 pm
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    I have been to Cuba more than 60 times in the past 20 years . As a Canadian I are very welcomed there . Many cuban families are my friends and I spend a lot of time in their homes.
    I have seen things get progressively worse for the average person in the last few years . Lack of basic necessities and food. No regular full time emoloyment for many people . Very ,very, low wages ! And now severe inflation with the elimination of the CUC currency. Many items are now unaffordable . Life there is hell ! There is not much hope for improvement unless this communist government is replaced.

  • February 7, 2021 at 1:33 pm
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    No matter how many positive things the Cuban government does, like the new law expanding privately owned businesses, nothing will ever be enough for the hardline Cubans who live in the US. When Obama reestablished diplomatic relations, the hardliners did every thing they could to sabotage the process. You can’t expect things to change overnight.

  • February 7, 2021 at 10:57 am
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    Olgasintamales,
    Your comment is deeply and unnecessarily unpleasant.
    I have mentioned many times that the USA is one of my favourite countries in the world. There are certain aspects there that I do not agree with. And I certainly wouldn’t agree with trump’s efforts to challenge against U.S. democracy.
    Cuba is also one of my favourite countries in the world and there are many aspects there that I don’t agree with either.
    It seems clear that in relations between these two countries historically and currently, the USA has always been the oppressor. During the Cold War there was perhaps some kind of context for this but not any more. President Obama could see this and tried to change it.
    I have had the good luck to have travelled quite a lot but I don’t go round the world telling people how to run their own country. I can suggest many ways in which Cuba could improve. Less restrictions on private enterprise will be a start.
    But unlike you Olgasintamales, I am fully aware of what the actual reality is and my hopes for improvements in Cuba are pragmatic and based on that reality.
    I’m not motivated by sex tourism as you unpleasantly suggest that I might be. I’m not motivated by hatred as you seem to be.
    Life in many countries can be difficult. Life in Cuba can be difficult. You seem to prefer that the lives of Cuban people are made even more difficult by U.S. policies so that you can achieve your ambition of some kind of personal revenge.

    Why don’t you just try to turn the page and let it go?

  • February 6, 2021 at 8:39 pm
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    Nick please, don’t assume I vote for Trump. But anything that make hard for the dictatorship of Havana I’m for.
    On the other hand you hate for USA is so sick that you’d rather see dissenters in jails, not free press, no most basic humans rights to the Cubans just to have an enemy of USA at 90!milles from its cost. I have never been back in Cuba since I left and probably never will but I would like for Cubans to enjoy freedom and democracy. Nick get over your left wing dream never worked, ask the people in the old eastern block if they would like to go back to socialism era and more that 80% would tell you hell no. I don’t know your intentions on your travels to Cuba, I hope it is not sexual tourism, but ignoring the pain of Cubans people and supporting a bloody, old obsolete dictatorship is disgusting.

  • February 6, 2021 at 5:38 pm
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    I think it’s pretty clear to US travelers who visited Cuba during those optimistic two years of Obama’s policies toward Cuba that things were looking up. Not perfect—but what is? It’s also clear that things aren’t going well at the moment. Some may say that’s coincidence or speculation. But clearly there are many of us who agree that a growing private sector is positive path for Cuba and its people. By contrast, letting people suffer and starve while we wait for old, bad leaders to die is not a strategy to be proud of, if it’s a strategy at all.

  • February 6, 2021 at 4:21 pm
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    Olgasintamales,
    Despite your beloved trump’s best efforts to defeat democracy in the the USA, he didn’t succeed. The world breathes a sigh of relief that he failed to stop democracy in the USA.
    Olgita, I don’t know when the last time you were in Cuba?
    But I can guarantee you that President Obama’s shrewd and intelligent policy put smiles on the faces of people from Pindar del Rio to Guantanamo.
    Why were so supportive of trump when he took those smiles away??
    I don’t give a damn about the politics or Berta Soler (she was accused by her Damas en Blanco colleagues of putting too much of their money in her pocket – they called her ‘la dictadora’).
    It was just good to feel that people in Cuba were smiling and that they were hopeful of improvements because of President Obama.
    Despite the unpleasant opposition of all the jealous zealots in Miami, hopefully President Biden will bring the smiles and the hope back to people in Cuba.

  • February 6, 2021 at 8:32 am
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    Nick, Berta Soler just sent a public message to Biden With the dictatorship there is no negotiation. Until they stop harassing the dissidents, the independent press, respect humans rights of Cubans people, and free elections with international observers. No more oxygen to the horrible dictatorship, 0 help. Democracy now. Let’s send the dated lefties of the Western Hemisphere to drink mojitos to North Korea.

  • February 6, 2021 at 7:22 am
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    I 100% agree with Nick above. The ONLY driver of Cuba policy is the Florida electoral college. Of course opening the economy would help every day cubans, but the desire to get the island back if things get better in Cuba will fade away (it’s not going to happen either way, but I guess hope springs eternal)

    To put Cuba on par with North Korea and Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism is absurd and spiteful.

  • February 5, 2021 at 8:55 pm
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    Necesitamos mantener el embargo a Cuba. una vez que la gente se harta, ¡se levantarán!

  • February 5, 2021 at 6:45 pm
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    There is a large amount of common sense in this article.
    The US policy toward Cuba causes hardship to Cubans in every conceivable way.
    It also gives the Cuban Government a very convenient scapegoat.

    Unfortunately most U.S. regimes, when it comes to Cuba, couldn’t give a flying f**k about democracy, hardships or the well being of anyone in the Caribbean. Never have done. Why would they suddenly do so now?
    Their policies are aimed purely at one thing only:
    Securing those juicy lil ‘ol FLA electoral college votes. And it’s always reckoned that it’s the jealous zealots of Miami that’s gonna deliver.
    There’s nothing democratic going on here – it’s simply a basic, bottom-line, gutter-level transaction like any other.

    The only White House occupant in recent times that even gave a sh*t about Cuba and it’s people was President Obama.

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