CHANGING THE COURSE OF CUBA
When the infamous Fidel Castro was replaced as president of Cuba by his brother Raúl in February 2008, the new president inherited a country in trouble. With a stagnant economy, an increasing national debt, and a steadily deteriorating standard of living in the communist state, Raúl Castro was faced with the unenviable task of turning the country’s fortunes around. The four years that have passed since Raúl became president have seen slow but steady changes in Cuba’s domestic and foreign policies that are beginning to benefit the Cuban population.
Raúl was clear in his vision for the country—he made it apparent in his acceptance speech that he wanted to maintain the fundamental principles his brother, Fidel, had given to Cuba. Crucially, though, the new president also recognised that an “excess of [government] prohibitions and regulations” were hindering the nation. Raúl wasted no time in easing some of these restrictions. Early changes allowing Cuban citizens to purchase their own electronics were largely ridiculed by foreign press, but the last few years have seen the nation gradually expand free-market reforms. Buying homes and cars, taking private loans from banks, and running private businesses are just some of the options that have become available to Cuban residents under Raúl’s presidency. The changes undertaken by the president of the struggling nation were explained when he acknowledged that mistakes had been made in building socialism in Cuba, and stated “either we change course or we sink”.
Raúl has also tried to change Cuba’s image in the international arena. His releasing of political prisoners early in 2011 was welcomed by Cuba’s largest trading partner, the European Union. A further attempt to improve Cuba’s poor human rights record was evidenced in December 2011, when a further 2,900 prisoners—mostly aged, ill, female, or juvenile—were pardoned of their respective crimes and released from prison. Cuba has also improved relations with many nation-states across the globe in recent years—Brazil, Australia, and Cambodia are among the countries to have increased dialogue and launched improved partnerships with Cuba during Raúl Castro’s reign. There remains, however, one major player that is still reluctant to improve relations with Cuba—the United States.
The U.S. maintains a commercial, economic, and financial embargo on Cuba that has been in place since 1962. The embargo, which was written into U.S. law in 1992, imposes sanctions on Cuba “so long as it continues to refuse to move toward democratization and greater respect for human rights.” Despite Raúl Castro’s free-market reforms and attempts to improve Cuba’s human rights record by releasing prisoners, the U.S. is, as yet, mostly unresponsive. In October 2011, the U.N. General Assembly called—for the 20th consecutive year—on the U.S. to end its embargo. In effect, the embargo not only robs the U.S. of a good opportunity for trade, but it has also been criticised for using food as a weapon—bullying Cuba by “starving” the general population. Reacting to the widespread condemnation in the U.S. media regarding the recent death of a Cuban dissident who died in prison after a 50-day hunger strike, a national Cuban newspaper opined that “the hypocrisy of spokespersons for the United States, a country with a poor human rights record at home and abroad, is staggering.” With 2012 being an election year in the U.S., it is unlikely that either President Obama or the eventual Republican candidate will change their policies on Cuba for fear of losing Cuban-American votes for their respective parties.
2012 will undoubtedly be an important year for Raúl Castro’s Cuba. With a national debt of over 20 billion U.S. dollars and an estimated budget deficit of 3.7% in 2011, it is clear that changes need to continue. Pope Benedict’s visit will undoubtedly be a big event in 2012. The Catholic Church has been instrumental in negotiating the release of political prisoners and has given advice on some free-market changes adopted by Castro, but the visit is unlikely to affect the struggling economy. However, a huge financial boost could occur later this year if, as hoped, Cuba finds oil off the Havana coast. But Cuba’s search for oil has again raised tensions with American officials, who are concerned that an oil spill there could impact the U.S. coastline.
Raúl Castro’s first four years as president of Cuba have seen changes designed to increase personal freedoms, stimulate the economy, and improve Cuba’s human rights record. Although the changes have been welcomed, the nation is ranked just 177th in the 2012 Index of Economic Freedom list—in front of only Zimbabwe and North Korea. Whether or not the reforms will have a lasting impact on Cuba’s fortunes remains to be seen, but it is clear that Raúl’s reforms need to continue.