“”This guy makes more in one day than a doctor makes in a month, and he's a taxi driver. Well, he's actually a trained engineer, but engineers make even less than doctors. Welcome to the Cuban economy.
Long a Spanish colony, Cuba was captured by the United States in 1898 at the conclusion of the Spanish-American War. It was then controlled for many years by US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Since the Cuban revolution of 1959, it was governed for almost fifty years by Fidel Castro, who gave the power to his brother Raúl Castro in 2008, similar to how monarchies handle throne successions. The older brother, Fidel Castro, survived numerous assassination attempts by the CIA; on the other hand, he also executed thousands of people. Cuba was the Soviet Union's only ally in the Western hemisphere; since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Cuba has been relatively isolated internationally. The Castros were succeeded by Miguel Díaz-Canel in 2019.
Located ninety miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba has experienced a trade blockade on the part of the U.S. since 1962. In December 2014, Raúl Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama announced that they had reached an agreement about normalizing relations. Called the Cuban thaw, it lifted some sanctions, loosened U.S. travel restrictions, and reopened the American embassy in Havana and the Cuban embassy in Washington (both closed in 1961). Many of these changes were reversed by Obama's successor Donald Trump in June 2017, but some remain in effect.
A Cuban-American love story
After the Spanish-American War, Cuba was the United States' playground and brothel in the Caribbean, a holiday destination with casinos (before Las Vegas became a thing) where US corporations were able to do as they pleased with a compliant banana republic government doing their bidding. Once the tables turned with the Cuban revolution in 1959, there was an exodus of wealthy Americans and Batista sympathizers, many dissidents were executed and American assets were nationalized; it was a perfect storm for the embargo to be put in place. Arguably, Castro might not have embraced Soviet Communism had the US reacted more cooperatively with the new reality in Fidel Castro's Cuba. Instead, Cuban isolation pushed them into the Soviet sphere of influence, leading Castro to nominally embrace Marxism as the only means of ensuring the long-term success of the Cuban revolution. However, this alternative scenario is unrealistic as humans (and not only humans) tend to dislike having their possessions taken from them.
As a result of the brutality and persecution by the Castro regime, a massive number of their victims fled to become full-fledged US citizens in one of the few swing states in the country: Florida. This has given rise to two special interest groups in the US who are vehemently against the normalization of relations: the corporations that lost their assets and the Cuban exiles. The former have since moved on, but the latter is still influential—many still refuse to vote Democratic because US President Kennedy didn't lend aid to the counter-revolutionaries. Notice that, if Cuban refugees all settled in a non-swing state, they would have a lot less electoral power in national politics; since Florida is essential to the electoral math, Republicans have embraced Cuban refugees (while the GOP and their base hate any other kind of refugee).
During the Obama administration, multiple diplomats, US military officials and businessmen called for easing (or even lifting) the embargo, which has been condemned by the United Nations every year since 1992. On August 14, 2015, the United States reopened its embassy in Havana, officially reinstating diplomatic ties with Cuba. However, since Trump took office, the relation between Cuba and the United States have not really improved.
After taking over from his brother Fidel—who, in 2010, publicly admitted that Cuba's communist economic system was a failure— in 2011, Raúl Castro's regime has engaged in some capitalist reforms, the kind of privatization and liberalization mainland China and Vietnam undertook since the fall of Communism in the 90s.[note 1] He allowed for limited markets and enterprise in small industries, but the Cuban government still controls the commanding heights of the economy.
However, Cuba is, unfortunately, taking steps backward, as, among various other regulations, it is enforcing licenses that restrict individuals to operating one business at a time (for example, a bed-and-breakfast owner can’t also run an in-house restaurant, because, if they could, then the free-market would take over, turn Cuba into a banana republic, and destroy the workers' utopia!) and the requirement that anyone operating a private business have an official bank account. Needless to say, many market experts and institutions are worried about this. This concern is more than justified since buildings continue to collapse due to the Cuban government's continued control over the allocation of capital goods.
This is particularly a shame because his liberalization allowed Cuba to get a middle class finally, and improve substantially. For instance, Cuba's gross national income per capita per day increased from $0.59 in 2010, when the reforms were first announced, to $1.01 in 2016.
Since 1982, Cuba had been on the United States Department of Defense "State Sponsors Of Terrorism" list, which claims that countries on that list have "repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism" along with (at the time) four other countries, due to their quite open vocal support and arming of revolutionary movements in several different Third World nations. The U.S State Department itself claims that:
Havana openly advocates armed revolution as the only means for leftist forces to gain power in Latin America, and the Cubans have played an important role in facilitating the movement of men and weapons into the region. Havana provides direct support in the form of training, arms, safe havens, and advice to a wide variety of guerrilla groups. Many of these groups engage in terrorist operations.
Conversely, the United States has in the past supported Cuban terrorist exiles, such as Luis Posada Carrilles, who died in 2018 aged 90 in Florida. He was implicated in bombing Cubana Flight 455 along with Orlando Bosch, murdering all 73 passengers and crew onboard. Declassified documents reveal the CIA did not directly participate in the plot, but knew about it beforehand and took no steps to stop the attack occurring.[note 2] In particular, it did not inform the Cuban government. Both men were also convicted for numerous other acts of terrorism against Cuba, but given safe haven by the US. This posed a problem for the (younger) Bush administration's counter-terrorism policy.
The United States, opponents of the Cuban communist government and many international and independent human rights organizations accuse the Caribbean country of being a dictatorship and violating human rights. Communists and supporters (apologists) of Cuba disagree and argue that there is no United Nations determination for what is the right model of democracy and no requirement for a multi-party system and allege that the Cuban nation is a grassroots popular democracy, where political processes are taken to the lowest level of social organization. The idea of a single-party system was not conceived by the communists, but in 1892 by José Martí, liberal independence leader, to unite Cubans against foreign domination and was approved by the Cuban people in 1976, when more than 97% voted for in favor of the new constitution, after exhausting grassroots discussions that involved millions of citizens and changed several articles. Since 1992, opposition parties are also permitted and legally, the Communist Party of Cuba and any of its possible opposition does not control the electoral process and is not allowed to campaign or endorse anyone. Any Cuban over 18 is allowed to run for elections and any Cuban over 16 can vote in a secret ballot. Candidates are nominated by local assemblies and any person has the right to suggest a nomination. Cubans are, allegedly, politically active and elections usually have over 90% turnout, although voting is not mandatory.[better source needed]
However, the US State Department and the Human Rights Watch (HRW) state that Cuban elections are neither free nor fair: although voting is not legally required, citizens are pressured to vote by the Committees for Defense of the Revolution (CDRs), state organizations closely aligned with the police and security services, which along with them monitor electoral meetings. Additionally, the media is state-controlled and uniformly supports government-approved candidates. All opposition political activities are effectively outlawed, with numerous dissidents imprisoned, making attempting political change peacefully a dangerous prospect. The legislature, even if it was freely elected, is also virtually powerless. It meets only a few days each year, with most business conducted by a government-controlled standing committee. In practice, higher offices require Communist Party membership.
Healthcare in Cuba
The nation offers health coverage to all of its citizens, sometimes even including opponents to their government. However, the healthcare service (as well as the economy overall) was vastly weakened by the United States embargo, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the fact that collective planning is terrible for providing services that private capital would usually cover.
Moreover, the United States imposed an ad hoc and strict prohibition on subsidiary trade in food and medicine to Cuba in 1992 with the passage of the Cuban Democracy Act (which obviously failed to live up to its name, on both sides of the gulf of Mexico). The Act forbade ships that dock in Cuban ports from docking in US ports for six months. This drastically inhibited shipping and thus increased shipping costs about 30%. Because of the nature of the trade prohibited, this embargo has been accused of violating international law. Restrictions on medicinal imports are so extensive that it is nearly impossible for Cuba to import medicines from the US. Some of these restrictions include provisions that Cuba must make all payments in cash and in advance, cannot obtain credit, either public or private, and that Cuba cannot use its own merchant vessels to transport the goods.
After the end of Soviet subsidies to Cuba, there was a period of economic shock and turmoil; this greatly affected the quality of the national health care service. However, in recent years, it has seen surprisingly substantial recovery and ample improvement. For example, Cuba became the first country to develop and market a vaccine for meningitis B, and its hepatitis B vaccine is being exported to needy nations worldwide. In addition, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Cuba provides a doctor for every 170 residents (ahead of the US where the ratio is 1 for every 188) and does fine on infant mortality and life expectancy rates (although these numbers need to be taken with a pinch of salt since there are some rather plausible allegations that the government forces doctors to fudge the data by classifying early natal deaths as "late fetal deaths").
In 2015 Cuba successfully eradicated the transmission of HIV and syphilis in utero. In 2019 they began a scheme to deliver PrEP (pre-exposure prophylactic) free of charge to at-risk citizens - the drug remains prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of Americans.[dead link]
Many apologetics of the Cuban dictatorship love to say how the country has a higher expectancy and lower infant mortality than the US. Of course, they forget that Cuba is still a dictatorship, and as a result, the data is unreliable at best as the government can just manipulate the numbers. What is even worse, the health achievements are in part the result of repressive methods. For instance, to prevent a higher infant mortality, physicians often perform abortions without clear consent of the mother, raising serious issues of medical ethics, when ultrasound reveals fetal abnormalities. Eugenics, someone?
A 2018 study argued that the Cuban health care system is hardly a model to follow, claiming that:
Enthusiasm around the Cuban health system often stems from an exclusive attention to one indicator, infant mortality rate (IMR), the value of which has been manipulated by a state seeking political legitimacy.
The overall performance of the Cuban health system, measured by progress in health conditions, has been overrated.
Some of the health achievements in Cuba have been attained at the expense of basic rights.
From late 2016, US and Canadian government workers, particularly CIA agents, in Havana reported mysterious feelings of headaches, dizziness, memory loss, sleeplessness, and other problems; many described feeling as if they were "bombarded by waves of pressure in their heads" or like "concussion without concussion". As it became clear these were more than just isolated incidents, it began to be referred to as "The Thing" or "Havana syndrome". A variety of conspiracy theories circulated about the cause, most focusing on the Cubans - although since Cuba was in the process of opening up diplomatic relations with the USA, it didn't make much sense for them to be harming the diplomats they were negotiating with. An alternative theory blamed it on the Russians, who might've wanted to disrupt the improving US-Cuban relations. But similar symptoms were reported in Canadian diplomats, despite Canada not having the same fractious relationship with Cuba that the US did. Since then, cases have also been reported by US government workers in Washington, DC and in 2021 in India.
Theories included a "sonic weapon" (infrasound or ultrasound) or microwaves or some other kind of electromagnetic beam or weapon. A recording device in the US embassy picked up a mysterious chirping noise, similar to crickets or cicadas, which was suspected of being the cause. One idea was that multiple sounds, maybe from different security systems, could be interfering and modulating to create destructive sound. Or maybe it involved the Frey effect, where low-energy microwaves directed at the ear can create an acoustic effect. Mass hysteria or psychological contagion was also suspected. James Giordano, head of neuroethics studies at Georgetown University, blamed "some form of electromagnetic-pulse generation and/or hypersonic generation that would then utilize the architecture of the skull to create something of an energetic amplifier or lens to induce a cavitational effect that would then induce the type of pathologic changes that would then induce the constellation of signs and symptoms that we’re seeing in these patients."
Michael Hoffer, an otolaryngologist at the University of Miami, examined some of the workers and found evidence of physical injury to their ears. Charles Rosenfarb, a senior medical official in the US State Department, reviewed the findings, and affected people were sent to the University of Pennsylvania, which again found evidence of harm. In August 2017, the US government expelled 15 Cuban diplomats in reprisal for the alleged attacks. In March 2018, a US Commerce Department worker in Guangzhou, China, reported similar symptoms, and gradually others did too — but when tested at the University of Pennsylvania, 14 out of 15 were cleared and one was judged "indeterminate", sufficiently different from the Cuban cases to probably have another cause. This again raised the possibility of psychological contagion.
In 2019, a Canadian study, which was able to use baseline medical data taken before people were stationed in Cuba, put the blame on pesticides used against mosquitoes, with the Zika epidemic in Latin America causing an increase in spraying in 2016-18; levels of cholinesterase, an important enzyme in the nervous system, were abnormally low in the patients, and some pesticides inhibit cholinesterase. However, in 2020 the (US) National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report into symptoms experienced by US staff in Havana and Guangzhou; they reported that while they couldn't rule out other factors such as chemical exposure, infectious disease, and psychological effects, the most likely cause was directed, pulsed radio frequency energy. This is led to reports that the US, China, and Russia may all have developed such weapons.
- Havana Times. Covers news in Cuba and the rest of Latin America, and features several editorials focusing on ordinary life in the country.
- Why Cuban cab drivers earn more than doctors
- Negroponte Leads Group Urging Obama to Ease Cuba Embargo, Bloomberg
- You Won’t Believe Where the Only McDonald’s in Cuba Is.
- "Fidel: 'Cuban Model Doesn't Even Work for Us Anymore'". The Atlantic. September 8, 2010.
- Raúl Castro to allow Cubans more private sector jobs, The Guardian
- Why Buildings are Collapsing in Cuba. AIER. December 12, 2018.
- Cuba moves backwards: New regulations likely to impede private sector growth. Brookings Institution
- Cuba set to tighten screws on private sector
- Grossman, D. A., Murphy, J., & Eberle, P. (2018). The Emergence of Entrepreneurship in Cuba: What Can We Learn. KnE Social Sciences, 3(10), 85–92. https://doi.org/10.18502/kss.v3i10.2886
- US Officially Removes Cuba From State Sponsors Of Terrorism List
- The list, which lacks Cuba.
- Guillermo Farinas was released from prison to be hospitalised, despite the fact that he was using civil disobedience in an attempt to provoke reform.
- Health Situation Analysis and Trends Summary: Cuba, Pan American Health Organization
- An Evaluation of Four Decades of Cuban Healthcare, SUNY Buffalo
- BMA must voice its opposition to Cuban embargo, British Medical Journal
- Assembly Again Seeks Repeal of Extraterritorial Measures Like United States Helms-Burton Act Against Cuba, UN
- Medical know-how boosts Cuba's wealth, BBC News
- Country Comparison: Infant Mortality and Life Expectancy at Birth, CIA
- Towards an HIV-free generation in Cuba, WHO
- Anti-HIV PrEP remains $2000/month in the US, two years on from generic FDA approval. In Cuba, it’s now free., Ruairi Wood.
- Berdine, Gilbert; Geloso, Vincent; Powell, Benjamin. "Cuban Longevity: Health Care or Repression?".Health Policy and Planning, Volume 33, Issue 6, July 2018, Pages 755–757.
- Gómez-Dantés, Octavio. Cuba’s health system: hardly an example to follow Health Policy and Planning, Volume 33, Issue 6, July 2018, Pages 760–761
- The Mystery of the Havana Syndrome, Adam Entous and Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker, 19 November 2018
- The real story behind the Havana Embassy mystery, Vanity Fair, Feb 2019
- CIA director “fuming” after Havana syndrome strikes team member in India, Ars Technica, 21 September 2021
- Mosquito fumigation may have caused mystery 'Havana syndrome', study says, The Guardian, 19 Sep 2019
- New Report Assesses Illnesses Among U.S. Government Personnel and Their Families at Overseas Embassies, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine News Release, December 5, 2020
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. An Assessment of Illness in U.S. Government Employees and Their Families at Overseas Embassies. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25889.
- Microwave weapons that could cause Havana Syndrome exist, experts say, The Guardian, June 2, 2021