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Cuba Embraces Free Market, China-Style

Whatever the hopes for Cuba, the country's regime seems keen to follow the profit model for the economy to shore up its political grip. Just like China and Russia.

Flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. embassy in Havana
Flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. embassy in Havana
Ricardo Kirschbaum

BUENOS AIRES — Fifty-eight years after the communist rebel Fidel Castro toppled Batista's corrupt government in Cuba, his brother, President Raúl Castro, is now recognizing, partially and reluctantly, the reality of the market economy. This is not unrelated to the recent process of détente begun between Cuba and the United States, and represents the end of a cycle and start of another, whose future remains to be written.

The complex changes that have begun inside the Cuban Communist party are also an open-ended process, initiated by an economic crisis it has failed to resolve, as well as its own ideological crises. More widely, the changes are the fruit of decades of U.S.-imposed sanctions, Cuba's previous economic dependence on the Soviet Union and the Communist leadership's own rigidity of thought, which restricted the country's development and economic options.

Carefully selecting its words, the Communist Party (PC) voiced on Aug. 16 its recognition of "the objective existence of market relations." We're talking relations here, not market economy — this difference can feed an ongoing theoretical, though not truly political, debate. Perhaps this is just as party leaders want.

Central idea

This effectively gives the signal for a shift toward models of vigorous political centralization complemented by economic liberalization, in the manner of Vietnam.

It is very difficult to say whether communist countries that have accepted market rules are capitalist now or not. We can only be certain that they stopped being altogether communist, by choice or force of circumstances.

What Cuba is doing is broadening the horizon for its reforms without ditching its central idea, as it seeks to emulate similar regimes elsewhere. The PC recognized the market principle in its April congress, though within "the functioning of the socialist economy," and the regime looks set to follow the principle of most other systems of its ilk (bar North Korea), which firmly maintain single party rule. We know that while the free market can increase political liberties to some extent, this, as Russia shows, is not inevitable.

Indeed as the economy is liberalized, the political regime retains control as it supervises and fine-tunes its version of the re-conversion process. The top-down system becomes a necessary complement to more open economic policymaking.

Another excuse for keeping the grip it seems is to manage corruption, which is a possibility in any regime. China has the highest rate of executions for crimes involving corruption. Expect then, the coming contradiction in Cuba: Economic liberalization will wind up riding roughshod over other, less lucrative, liberties.

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Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Noel, a Cuban engineer who had to emigrate to the faraway island of Saint Lucia, tells about the Cuban government's systematic intimidation techniques and coercion of its professionals abroad. He now knows he can never go back to his native island — lest he should never be allowed to leave Cuba again.

Forced Labor, Forced Exile: The Cuban Professionals Sent Abroad To Work, Never To Return

Next stop, Saint Lucia

Laura Rique Valero

Daniela* was just one year old when she last played with her father. In a video her mother recorded, the two can be seen lying on the floor, making each other laugh.

Three years have passed since then. Daniela's sister, Dunia*, was born — but she has never met her father in person, only connecting through video calls. Indeed, between 2019 and 2023, the family changed more than the two little girls could understand.

"Dad, are you here yet? I'm crazy excited to talk to you."

"Dad, I want you to call today and I'm going to send you a kiss."

"Dad, I want you to come for a long time. I want you to call me; call me, dad."

Three voice messages which Daniela has left her father, one after the other, on WhatsApp this Saturday. His image appears on the phone screen, and the two both light up.

The girls can’t explain what their father looks like in real life: how tall or short or thin he is, how he smells or how his voice sounds — the real one, not what comes out of the speaker. Their version of their dad is limited to a rectangular, digital image. There is nothing else, only distance, and problems that their mother may never share with them.

In 2020, Noel*, the girls' father, was offered a two-to-three-year employment contract on a volcanic island in the Caribbean, some 2,000 kilometers from Cuba. The family needed the money. What came next was never in the plans.

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