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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • …if I were poor? You would probably be poor if you were born and lived in Cuba. While I concede that poverty in Cuba is ‘better’ than poverty in, say, Haiti, it is still poor. Moreover, even in Haiti, there are more legitimate opportunities to escape poverty than there are in Cuba. One more comment…I run into people like you all the time in Cuba. You fly down to Cuba and put in your 2/3 months of socially – redemptive service in the countryside and you then fly back home. You feel good about yourself and you should. But never mistake your experience with the experience of those “guajiros” you have worked with. You get to fly home. They are stuck there.

  • You are correct Alessandra. Do not mind the comments of the Starbucks Freedom Fighters below. I’ve been to Cuba some 30xs since 1993. Most of the time spent in the countryside, in bohios w/ servicios. Living and working among guajiros. On the flip side, I am an attorney in the US and my clientele are mostly from the Underclass, or immigrants. I know first hand about the lives these people live and the justice they can expect. And yes, from what I know and seen and lived all these years, I unequivocally would choose Cuba if I were poor.

  • The Castros have thrown many Cubans in poverty and shoved propaganda down their throats. Read a few articles on this site and tell me how great the quality of life is. Come back when you know the dangers of socialism and the REAL Cuba, not what Fidel wants you to think.

  • So I guess you are an expert in Cuban Life? You can write on the internet from your NYC flat with a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker, but until you have gone to Cuba (not a Melia hotel) come back and tell me.

  • Cuba’s Colonial Period ran from the Spanish Conquest when Columbus arrived up until the defeat of the Spaniards in the War of Independence & the Spanish-American War. From 1998 to 1903, Cuba was ruled by a US military occupation. The period from 1903 to 1959 is referred to as the Cuban Republican Era. US influence was extensive, often called hegemony, but it was not a colony. The Platt Amendment, which allowed US intervention in Cuba under specific circumstances, was repealed in 1933. As a percentage of the Cuban economy, US influence was actually declining in the 1940s & 50’s. The largest landowner in Cuba and the “Sugar Baron” was Julio Lobo, a Venezuelan-born Cuban citizen.

    The Castro regime has exaggerated the extent of US control over Cuba during the Republican Era. The Cuban people, from many sectors of society, rose up against Batista. They demanded an end to dictatorship & the return to the democratic Cuban Constitution of 1940. No Cuban, not even Fidel Castro before 1959, had pledged to turn the country into a Communist dictatorship or to seize all privately held property.

    The Castro regime continues to offer the false-choice, “it’s either the Revolucion or the Empire!” as a swindle to prevent the Cuban people from exerting their own independence and having the Cuba they have always wanted: free, sovereign and democratic.

    The bitter irony today is that in order to preserve their power, the Castro regime is prepared to cut deals with the USA again, selling cheap Cuban labour to US corporations in partnership with the Cuban military conglomerate GASEA.

    The Cuban people be damned.

  • A happy socialist is a socialist who lives in a capitalist country. Did you know that Lenin called people like you, and like Bernie Sanders, “useful idiots?”

    I’m sure neither his nor your admiration of Cuba’s “achievements” extends to moving there fur its many benefits, or supporting instituting here their Marxist system of no private property, no free expression, no freedom of association, no freedom of movement (Cubans are required to get government permission to move to another dwelling, or another town), and meager food rations.

    Everything is free! But everything is scarce!

  • Karina & Mike wrote, “The sad reality has been a loss of democracy and less human rights. This may very well be the neo-colonial future for Cuba.”

    No need to worry about that, folks. Cuba has no democracy or human rights to lose! And Raul Castro has already insisted there will be no political changes for Cuba. So while foreign corporations are welcome to exploit Cuban workers, they will have to do so in through partnership with the largest corporation in Cuba, GAESA, which is owned by the Cuban military. This way, the Castro regime is guaranteed a growing income stream to fund the repressive apparatus of the totalitarian state and maintain their grip on power forever.

  • The iron clad control of business, media, congress hits any one of ‘we, the people’ when walking into congressional offices to encourage our representatives to support the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall standards of banking. This iron clad control is all tidy and legal; this hate legislated for the benefit of the oligarchy must be broken or the nation will fail not only culturally and economically but existentially. Yet the moral imperative dictates that the Hamiltonian concept of productive credit economy (copyed by the BRICS nations, providing for the pursuit of happiness for all) undergird a government of, by and for the people, This is happening sooner than later due to the information highway and creativity of all people not created as slaves but sisters/brothers.

  • How long did you live in Cuba to have a basis for your “million times better” comment? You armchair Bolshevik love to praise life in Cuba and know nothing about what it is really like.

  • What “so much” are you referring to? You’re obviously not Cuban.

  • America need to clean up their own house before they start pointing fingers at other people’s houses.The days of the CIA,Baptista and the Mafia,now corporate American banks and businesses will never be allowed to come back and dominate.

  • Agreed, the Gov will not be turning the economy lose anytime soon. They insist on 50% ownership on foreign investments. No return to pre 1959 Cuba.

  • Haven’t you heard it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt?

    What the hell do you about conditions in Cuba? Have you lived there fur an extended period? Do you have family living there who are not members of the privileged Communist Party Members, which does NOT include the vast majority of Cubans?

    If conditions are so great, why can the country not feed itself? Why do “balseros” keep coming even when economic conditions in the U.S. are less than optimal? You may have noticed that many illegal Mexicans have chosen to return to Mexico during the current economic recession in the U.S. Why are there no similar out flows of Cubans?

  • The people of Cuba are suffering hunger and scarcity bright in by failed Marxist economic policies. They don’t have ant any political rights, or freedom of expression or press, but in your fevered lefty mind it’s the U.S. Erin the Cuban people have to fear?

  • “Achieved so much”? Why is it that those who don’t live under the Cuban system are always it’s biggest defenders? Just yesterday another group of desperate Cubans arrived on Miami Beach. They were obviously escaping “all that is good” in Cuba

  • Well, sure, life for the white KKKers was much better than for your lynched and terrorized blacks. Wining and dining in Berlin among the Na zis was much more enjoyable than being in the Jewish ghetto being starved to death. But life in Cuba is millions times better than in any poor neighborhood anywhere in the world, and that includes all the places the US has destroyed and oppressed.

  • Great article. I, too, am afraid for Cuba. The Castros and the Cubans have achieved so much. Will the US finally destroy everything that is good in Cuba? American capitalists are a collection of vicious leeches.

  • Hating the US is not the same as supporting Cuba. Anti-US rhetoric has its place and you have every right to your beliefs. But for all of the problems Americans face, life in the US is still much better than life in Cuba. Were it no so, tens of thousands of Cubans would not risk their lives to get here and start over from scratch.

  • The authors appear to have very little knowledge of the iron clad control the Cuban government had, have, and in the future will have over the business economy. They also appear to fail to recognize the strong desire of the government and a majority of the citizens to never return to the Colonial Period that existed from 1903 to 1959 when the US dominated Cuba economically and politically.

    Their knowledge base seems to have come from sophomoric academic research with little or no time actually on the ground in Cuba understanding how everything really is.

  • Once they start talking about the IMF and the World Bank, run for cover. Oh, and you might want to pick up a copy of John Perkins’s newly-updated book “The New Confessions of an Economic Hitman.”

  • The people of Cuba should be Very leery about the USA …they are pure greed- driven and exploitation-to-the-core, their Corpo-rats are vile self-serving parasites who shipped millions of Americans jobs to dirt-poor, slave-labour nations all over the globe. They claim freedom and democracy? for who? the top few who are legally allowed to steal money owed the people of the USA… move it to some made-up, tax-theft nation and sit on it… like the God they truly worship.
    Only Bernie Sanders speaks the truth, the lying slag.. Wal-Mart/ Wall St.. serf Clinton is a self- serving professional politician who sides with any and all cause to get votes. The USSR kept Cuba going, if not for them, the war-mongering USA would have invaded and turned Cuba into a playground for the thieving rich, prostitutes, drugs, crime all rampant, like the crime, drug, poverty, vast- inequality, murder-ridden USA. God bless the great Fidel… kicked US arse for decades Yeah!!

  • Read the article again please. Slowly.

  • This is a very good article. Thank you for going over some of the potential problems both Cuba and US ought to be aware of going forward with whatever relationship develops. Based on your story here, I hope the government of Cuba will be able to resist the bribes and perks that come from off-the-record deals with US oligarchs.

  • I am not in favor of socialist liberalization in any country, nor democratic liberalization in the United States in what may undermine the working peoples of the world, in which the Supra Transnational Monopoly Capitalist Corporate States that attacks the people of the world from all sides nationalist, capitalist, and socialist as they are most active and duplicitous serving their own interests based on power and greed. So I resent such articles that mention airport infrastructure and make not mention to the other threats to the souls of mankind in which Cuba and the US are included.

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