Neo-Colonialism Arrives In Cuba

By Karina Arciniegas and Mike Schirtzer

A Havana currency exchange office.
A Havana currency exchange office.  Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — Less than a year ago, President Obama announced his decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and to “bury the last remnants of the Cold War in the Americas”. This past week Obama made a visit to our neighbor to formalize all the agreements made over the last year. He brought with him a delegation that included elected representatives and business leaders.

Soon, commercial flights will be leaving from New York, Miami and other cities that will land in Cuba. Cruise ships are hastily making arrangements to dock in the ports of Havana. Is Cuba ready to receive the influx of tourists that will soon arrive to the island to see it “before it changes”?

Having been in Cuba right after Obama’s announcement and spoken to people of different socioeconomic statuses, it was evident that Cubans knew these changes were coming and that Cuba was not ready for it.

The island does not have the infrastructure necessary for the masses that will soon be arriving. The airports are small and only accommodate a certain number of people at a time. In fact, we had to wait for the passengers of the arriving flight to leave the airport in Havana before the passengers of the departing flight were allowed in.

Cruise ship docks are not big enough for the massive ships that have already begun to take reservations. There are not enough accommodations for all the Americans that will soon be on their way. Currency exchanges are limited, have long lines while our ATM/credit cards are still not accepted. Let’s not forget that slow internet is limited to the few minutes that a $2 card can give you, if you can even get connected.

Cuba is not ready, but ready or not, here come the Americans. The crisis has begun! The only way to solve “the crisis” is for American corporations to come in and save the day. American businesses and friendly government officials from both countries will call for “shock treatment” of more free-market policies. Only more privatization will be able to solve this tourist crisis.

American corporations and investors will be ready to “provide” Cuba with what it needs.  As a matter of fact, it has already started.  First it was the US based airlines that will provide the transportation. Verizon and Google will work within Cuba to provide the ever-needed and can’t-live-without internet.

Starwood Resort will be taking over two existing hotels in Havana and Airbnb has already been a bridge between the homeowners who are looking to make some extra cash and visitors who enjoy the “home” experience.

Seeing Havana through the "Camara Oscura". Photo: Juan Suarez
Seeing Havana through the “Camara Oscura”. Photo: Juan Suarez

It is evident that little by little, as the door opens wider and the influx is greater, the shock of the unprepared Cuba will be followed by hungry American enterprises who will take over, as if only their neoliberal free-market policies could solve this manufactured crisis.

Following the ideas of “shock treatment” as well as Naomi Klein’s take on Milton Friedman’s economic ideas, it is easy to draw parallels between what happened all over Latin-America in the 1970s and 1980s and what could happen or is happening in Cuba now.

Neo-colonial policies: large multi-national corporations based in the US, China, and Japan open up businesses, take over public lands, privatize public services, work with governments to deregulate, end all trade restrictions, destroy labor unions, and drive down wages in the name of “freedom”.

Democratically elected governments were overthrown and replaced with American-friendly dictators like Pinochet who allowed the US and its economists to use the country as a guinea pig, driving the country to a debt that only US corporations could save it from. Is this what Cubans have been waiting for?

In the case of Cuba, we are hearing snippets of “freedom for Cubans” together with promises of bringing more competition and better services to the Cuban people. This is the rhetoric that is slowly taking shape to capture the apparent purpose of this intervention.

Americans with a “moral responsibility” to spread freedom will portray themselves as the saviors that bring all-powerful capitalism to Cuba. We will sell the people of Cuba our belief that economic freedom leads to more democracy, which will mean equal rights and greater opportunities for all. The problem is that for those of us living in the U.S., especially to minority groups, this hardly proves to be the case.

The discussion of democracy and human rights has been central to the new exchange between our governments. As Americans, we are told that we have unprecedented privilege to protest our government, speak out on the internet or in our town squares against policies or politicians we oppose. We have the right to vote within a two-party system, we have the right to education up until 12th grade. We have a judicial system that is supposed to offer everyone due process. The nation speaks proudly of providing equality for all.

Many Cubans may hold us up as the beacon of hope in aspiring to a human rights standard. Yet, we cannot forget the injustice that exists here. The Black Lives Matter movement started last year as a response to police brutality, continued lack of justice, mass incarceration, and systematic racism against black youth. This happens today, nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights movement and the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Activists in New York City are routinely pepper sprayed and arbitrarily arrested for protesting.

In order to march in the streets, groups must first obtain a police permit. Labor unions are constantly struggling for survival due to corporate backed anti-worker laws.  Wages are lower than ever before, income inequality is rampant, women have yet to reach equality and college students are in greater debt than ever before. Is this the democracy and human rights our Cuban brothers and sisters are starving for?

We have elections, but do we really have a choice? We have two political parties, but corporations have already bought and sold candidates from both. The illusion of choice best describes our electoral system. We can open up any business we want, but do we treat all our workers with dignity?  We have free education, yet it is still segregated; students of color and their schools receive less resources, perpetuating a cycle of poverty amongst these minority groups.

When Obama and the US media pressed Raul Castro on his human rights violations for locking up dissidents, he pushed back. Castro answered “We have a right to healthcare, the right to education. In Cuba, women get same pay for same work”.

The Castro regime is guilty of locking up dissidents and suppressing public debates, but does the United States have the moral standing to point out the failures of another? The US media is filled with articles that talk about how beneficial American economic intervention will be for average Cuban.

Colonial Havana. Photo: Juan Suarez
Colonial Havana. Photo: Juan Suarez

The rhetoric of how much Cubans lack “freedom” and need competition in their economy so that they can have better products and services is the excuse to invade their markets. The wand of capitalism will work its magic sooner than we expect.

While it is true that many Cubans seek out better services and opportunity, there is concern for what will have to be sacrificed in order to get it.  How far will the hand of capitalism reach their island?

Latin-American history shows how it has been conquered multiple times. Greg Grandin points out in his book Empire’s Workshop the three conquests that of Latin-America. The first, by the Spaniards in 1492, the second one in the 1970s through Nixon’s and Kissinger’s policies, and lastly, through Reagan’s and Friedman’s economic policies.  

Although, the last two conquests seem to simply be economic, they pushed Latin American countries into extreme debt that resulted in selling its land and services to foreign corporations. What was once provided to the people was handed over to private companies. The free-market forces have stretched the classes to an extreme of wealthy and poor. The sad reality has been a loss of democracy and less human rights. This may very well be the neo-colonial future for Cuba.

Castro reiterated that “patience” is needed.  Will patience indeed allow Cuba to take precautions to not let multinational corporations reinstall the colonial practices of the past that are still prevalent all over Latin-America today?  This remains to be seen.

Karina Arciniegas is a Spanish Language teacher from Leon M. Goldstein High School in Brooklyn, NY. She is a graduate student at the Center for Latin-American and Caribbean Studies, New York University.

Mike Schirtzer is a History teacher and union delegate from Leon M. Goldstein High School in Brooklyn, NY. He is an organizer with the Movement of Rank and File Educators, the social justice caucus of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).

27 thoughts on “Neo-Colonialism Arrives In Cuba

  • March 31, 2016 at 9:56 am

    Again, you subscribe to the simplified and inaccurate version of Cuban history promoted by the Castro regime. The reality was much more complex.

    The relationship between Spain & Cuba during the Colonial era was qualitatively different from the relationship between the US and Cuba during the Republican era.

    When Cuba was a Spanish colony, Spain appointed the Governor and all other major political posts, as well as the senior clerics, judges and other officials. Only Spanish born men had the vote, those born in Cuba did not. All political and judicial positions involved institutional corruption. No court case could be heard without money being paid to judges and magistrates. Businesses had to pay bribes to receive licenses. This was not merely widespread, but the standard practice in Cuba. Capital for investment was limited and tightly controlled from Spain. The majority of the population was dirt poor, there was a small middle class and a very small very wealthy ruling class.

    After Cuba gain independence, all Cuban men had the vote, including blacks. Women gained the vote in 1933. Political & judicial corruption was outlawed, although it did persist in practice. The corruption was in spite of US efforts to stamp it out, not because of the US interference. Regular elections were held during the republican era. These were not without corruption or controversy. In one case, the election result was ignored by the incumbent party, this lead to fighting and the US, citing the Platt Amendment intervened. The US Marines arrived, not to appoint the Cuban government of they choice, but to protect US owned property in Cuba and to stop the Cubans from killing each other. Another election was held in 1908, and the US marines left.

    Capital for investment increased dramatically during the republican era, mostly from the US. This capital went to US businesses mostly, but Cuban owned businesses also benefited. However, many Cubans resented the growing US ownership of land and other businesses. Cuban employees of US businesses were paid well relative to the average wage, but they were shut our of higher management. Racism was common. The rural poor were about 30% of the population, the urban poor were becoming unionized and had better conditions than before. The middle class was growing in size and affluence. There remained a small, very wealthy class at the top with a large measure of political power.

    I could go on, but the point I want to make is that the situation was a lot more complex than the standard Castro propaganda line makes it out. Cubans benefited from the relationship with US, but at a cost. They came to resent being the junior partners in their own country. They wanted a better, more fair relationship with the US, but nobody was talking about confiscating all US property and starting a Communist revolution.

    Inequality was bad, but the overall standard of living was rising. The US intervened 3 times under the Platt Amendment, but they did not appoint the Cuban presidents. Cubans elected their own governments but not always wisely. The two infamous dictators of that era, Machado and Batista had each been elected to office before turning dictator. Did you know, for example, that when Batista was elected in 1940, he was backed by the Communist Party?

    For an excellent history of Cuba, I recommend “Cuba: a History” by Hugh Thomas. Thomas lays out the complexities of the Cuban republican era very clearly, which helps explain the conditions which lead to the coup by Batista in 1952, the popular rebellion against him and the Communist revolution which followed it. That’s an important point: the Revolution did not “triumph” in January 1, 1959 when Batista fled, as no revolution had yet occurred. It was several months later, after Castro had consolidated his grip on power and invited Communists into his new government that the actual revolution began.

  • March 31, 2016 at 8:05 am

    Stuck ? My wife is Cuban, and in many ways she feels “stuck” here. I do immigration law. I see Cubans all the time who long to return to Cuba, but who have to like millions of Mexicans and Colombians, stay here out of economic necessity. BTW, I didn’t comment on the nature and extent of my experience in Cuba b/c it is in anyway laudable. I do so to expose the common argument that the Western tourist in Cuba, beguiled by charm of Havana and government propaganda, comes back deceived into thinking that Cuba is a good place, but that anyone w/ more familiarity would quickly come to a different conclusion. I also forgot to mention that my perspective on Cuba also comes from what I’ve seen firsthand in a handful of countries in Central and South America.

  • March 30, 2016 at 1:32 pm

    Griffin: you are right, I was misleading when I capitalized Colonial Period. I should have referred to the time when the US treated Cuba essentially as an economic colony as Spain had done before independence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *