O Senile Captain, Where Are We Sailing To?

With Cuba’s benefactor regime in Venezuela teetering, memories are stirring of the economic collapse that overwhelmed the island when the Soviet Union broke up and stopped plugging the leaks in Cuba’s economy. But, writes Juan Orlando Perez in El Estornudo, the island’s unending fearful voyage goes on without chart or purpose; is there even a Cuban economy left to sink this time?

Raul Castro briefly came out of his hiding place last month to assure Cubans that there was no truth to the persistent rumors of an imminent and inevitable return of that economic catastrophe his brother had called by the cruel euphemism ‘the Special Period.’

Certain wags undoubtedly thought to themselves that it would be impossible ‘return’ to something that never left in the first place, that in order to have a second ‘Special Period’ we would have to finish the first one. That since in Cuba after 1990 there has never been a single ‘un-special’ day in the unfortunate sense that Fidel gave the word, that whatever new misfortunes the country suffers in the future, after all these years of indecent poverty, it will be nothing exceptional or strange in the least. That it will be Revolutionarily Normal.

Raul appears to believe that the lives of Cubans have improved so much since he became the owner of the country that vague rumors that the Special Period is about to begin again might provoke panic. Or, as another exquisite euphemism would have it, it might provoke “discouragement and uncertainty.” He told the National Assembly: “We do not deny that there may be stresses, but we are prepared this time and in better position to reverse them.”

Not even the naivest deputies in the national assembly-and there are some real idiots there-believed that Raul had revealed the whole truth of the precarious state of the Cuban economy, or of the realistic possibility that it might collapse to an even further level of ruin in the ongoing and perennial national crisis. But the head honcho, after grumpily accepting the applause of his underlings, scuttled out of the Convention Center and went back to his hiding place, not to be seen since.

Cubans know perfectly well-even if Raul thinks he is hiding it, as his brother did before him, and goes on pretending that Cuba is ready to confront the vilest enemies and the most devastating catastrophes-they know that bad times are coming that could be as hard as 1993, a year in which Cuba nearly sank beneath the sea.

Cuba’s principal industry-that is, Venezuela—is in the midst of being destroyed by a violent political conflict between two groups which are ferociously unable to reach a reconciliation, or even a ceasefire. And although the majority of Cubans who are unhappily forced to figure out what is going on in the world by way of Cuba’s Noticiero de Television, or the very Bolivarian [Chavista] Telesur, or the unintelligible [Cuban newspapers] Granma and Juventud Rebelde, do not know or understand the details of what is going on down in Caracas, they have been unable to avoid noticing that the government of Nicolas Maduro might well lose power by constitutional means before the end of the year, or by any other means at any moment at all.

Maduro, this mathematically inexplicable person, might, it must be said-if he resorts to a lot of gimmicks and if he does not lose the support of his generals and colonels-resist the vast opposition offensive and get to the end of his presidential term. But judging from the news, it seems very probable that he is going to be thrown out of Miraflores Palace before the still far-away date of 2019.

In any case Cuba has already been deeply weakened by the crisis in Venezuela, even with Maduro still in office. Venezuela dispatched 40 percent less free oil in the first half of 2016 than it did in the same period of the previous year, a figure that was confirmed by the Venezuelan government’s petroleum company to Reuters, but which Raul took care not to mention in his speech to the National Assembly. If Madura falls, an eventuality few would bet against, Cuba would see it disappear entirely.

Probably a new Venezuelan government, which Raul Castro might well refuse to recognize, would rethink or even repudiate and refuse to carry out the commercial agreements that those two old ghosts Fidel and Hugo Chavez once signed, agreements which gave Cuba advantages that for example the American state of North Carolina could only dream that its southern twin South Carolina would give it. The twenty or so thousand Cuban doctors at work in Venezuela would be forced to return to their clinics and hospitals on the island, the coaches to their empty pools and roofless gymnasiums, the security agents to their work persecuting the island’s Women in White.

The fall of Chavismo in Venezuela would certainly be less catastrophic for Cubans than the fall of the Soviet communists was in 1991, because for all that the island depends on the generosity, sympathy or stupidity of Venezuela’s leaders, it is not the same degree as the onetime dependency on the gerontocracy of the Kremlin. Not because in these last twenty-five years the Cuban economy has seen some incredible growth spurt, achieved a Norwegian level of financial stability, filled the Latin American and European markets with its exported automobiles, medicines and agricultural products, Havana become some glittering new Singapore.

No, Cuba is today, it could be argued, even poorer than it was before the ‘Special Period,’ its economy even more unproductive, its few industries even older and less efficient; tens of thousands more professionals and trained workers having left. The 2016 harvest will only produce 1.6 million tons of sugar, less than was produced when Jose Miguel Gomez was president [a century ago].

There are still two distinct currencies circulating in Cuba, 23 years after Fidel Castro permitted Cubans to start using dollars to do things like buy soap and cooking oil, or even-radical measure-keep them in a bank. Yes, twenty-three years later.

Even tourism, the only important industry that the country has left, has grown extremely slowly since Fidel, in that wandering speech of July 26 1993, admitted that if there were any other option he would prefer not to have so many foreign tourists wandering around his island. Almost 4 million tourists will visit Cuba this year, but the Dominican Republic, with half the territory of Cuba, will receive six million.

Americans still cannot travel to Cuba as simple tourists, one obvious reason for the parsimonious growth of tourism on the island. But this prohibition is on the point of wisely being removed, and when the Americans really come-and they are already here in handfuls, pushed in by the sly president Obama, they are going to find the Cubans ill prepared, without even a place to put them.

The blockade has many and terrible faults, as anyone who reads Granma or Cubadebate knows, but it not at fault for the fact that the airport in Havana is smaller, and enormously less well equipped and pleasant, than the airports on any number of microscopic Greek islands.

Yes, of course the majority of Cubans live better than they did 25 years ago, but that is not saying much since 1993 was no life at all.

The Venezuelan oil, which the island has drunk so avidly, has kept the TVs and fans powered on in all the houses in Cuba for the past fifteen years. Raul, who has been a very mediocre administrator, though infinitely less cruel and more pragmatic than his brother was, has given Cubans some few liberties, like the ability to buy and sell houses, to travel overseas, to open a restaurant or a hostel, to maybe stay in a hotel with a pool and air conditioning, to connect to the internet for an hour or two in a park or in the middle of the street, and in exchange for these gracious concessions, Cubans have agreed to go on being deprived of the freedom to vote for their own representatives, to have a free-or even readable-press, or to say out loud at least something of what they think. Crucially, Cuba has received in the last twenty-three years hundreds of millions of dollars sent to the island from the exile community.

Last year alone – and once again blame that perverse President Obama- 3.3 billion dollars in money and goods were sent from Cuban Americans to relatives on the island, according to the Havana Consulting Group. And for anyone who is shocked by the figure, they should have a look at the paladares of Havana or the prices of apartments in Vedado. The Cuban exiles in Europe have surely sent back some few Euros, Pounds, or Kroner as well. Only six countries in Latin America take in more family remittances than Cuba.

In his speech before the national assembly, Raul never mentioned remittances once, although to be fair perhaps that was what he meant when he said that the country was prepared to survive another crisis. He meant to say, though perhaps this was not widely understood, that the Cubans in Cuba would turn off their televisions and fans if they needed to, they would walk to work, they would go back to eating rice and little else, as they have done so many times before, and the exiles would keep sending money to their families, if 1993 comes back, so that they could buy the little else and the rice, and they would not go hungry, or as hungry as before.

Remittances, the most important source of hard currency that Cuba can count on, is only fleetingly mentioned in the absurd document entitled “Conceptualization of the Cuban Economic and Social Model of Socialist development.” Of remittances, it says only that ‘there exist other legitimate sources of income not derived from labor, such as remittances, inheritances, the sale of personal property…” The omission of remittances, both their benefits and their injustice, from this spectacularly useless pamphlet, is as ridiculous as if Saudi Arabia, in its own “Conceptualization”-if the Saudis were wont to waste time on such a thing- had just left out the oil, or if Barbados had forgotten to mention tourism, or Germany omitted BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Porsche.

This document and its companion, the utopian “National Plan for Economic and Social Development to 2030,” hides away certain realities that it would be hard for Cubans to hear, and which the Venezuelan crisis is making very evident. For example that the eternal Cuban government has done almost nothing, or nothing effective, to correct the structural deficiencies in its economy, to try to make it more dynamic, free, creative, or efficient. And that the only model Raul and his brother know and understand is the parasitic one, in which Cuba depends on the benevolence of countries which are infinitely richer–first the Soviet Union and later Venezuela–and gives in return its most important export product, which is neither sugar nor tobacco nor even doctors, but a political-military-intelligence alliance, one which first permitted the soviets to carry the frontiers of the Cold War to within ninety miles of Key West, and keep them there for thirty years, and later helped Chavez and Maduro maintain their elaborate Bolivarian regime.

If Maduro is overthrown, it is difficult to imagine who might follow him in the depressing role of Cuba’s benefactor, who will want to inherit the fateful political and military alliance with Raul Castro or his still unknown successor. Neither Vladimir Putin nor the Chinese seem particularly interested, given that being ninety miles from Key West is a lot less valuable than it was back in 1959.

The only thing left to Cuba, unless it changes profoundly, and opens its economy, carefully but decisively, to both foreign capital and its own people. The only thing it will have left during the storm that is coming will be its so-generous and so-detested exiles, and the tourists whom Castro would have so preferred to keep off his island. And the Cubans of the island itself, these long suffering Juans and Marias and Yusnetzis-they go about their work as if the only thing that can save them from the misfortune of their country were to go about their work as if Cuba were a normal country. If 1993 comes back again, or even half of it, Cuba will survive to be sure.

This island is surely made of cork, because if it hasn’t already sunk to the bottom of the sea, weighed down by all the disappointment and apathy of its people, nothing at all can sink it. What Raul surely fears is not the return of 1993. It is the memory that after 1993 came the fury of 1994.

Juan Orlando Pérez Translated from Spanish by International Boulevard.