Surprises from Cuba

By Rosemary Werrett

Two women are in charge of the U.S.-Cuba “normalization” negotiations—a welcome surprise—and not the only one I found on a recent World Policy trip to the Island. 

The “new” Cuba I saw was in sharp contrast to the Cuba I had encountered on previous trips. I first visited the country in 1977, when I met with Fidel Castro, who was hosting a large delegation of CEOs eager to rebuild business relations. However, since Castro was intent on staying the socialist course and helping Angola fight its war of independence, we were never able to initiate business. Twenty years later, my husband and I returned for a casual visit. We drove around a Cuba that was crippled by poverty following the withdrawal of Soviet oil and other subsidies, which left Cuba with blackouts and empty markets. And when I went back in 2015, I found the country transformed yet again.

There are several notable changes that caught my attention this time around:

The massive restoration of Cuba’s splendid architectural heritage: I have traveled to virtually every capital in the hemisphere. None has 60 blocks of intact Spanish colonial treasures. During its 55 years of “purda,” or period of forced separation when it received virtually no international funding, Havana’s magnificent centuries-old collection of government buildings, churches, mansions, parks, and plazas steadily decayed. Now, with the help of private-public partnerships, this extensive period piece is emerging from its restoration to reveal a living museum.

Seeing this, I could not help but reflect on how differently revolutionary zeal has been exercised in Cuba and in the Middle East. When Fidel Castro and his band of followers took over in 1959, they did not destroy the churches, the colonial monuments, or even the signatory casinos and clubs of the Fulgencio Batista regime. Instead, they focused on health and education, and let the historical monuments be. This approach is in stark contrast to the mindless destruction of iconic relics by the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

A refreshing environment: Cuba’s cities are small-scale, traffic-free, and verdant—qualities they had 20 or 40 years ago, but which were not so rare at the time. Now that the entire world is exhaustingly overbuilt with glass towers, massive clovers of road, relentless truck traffic, and hordes on sidewalks, Cuba presents a calm and pretty paradise. I thought of Laos, the one Asian country that is not yet a financial “tiger.” Laos also spent many years in political isolation, opening up only tentatively in the 1990s but sticking with one-party communist rule and making little effort to diversify its rice-centered economy. Like Cuba, it is a pleasure to visit for its quietude, hospitality, and beautiful scenery.

Food: This was a most pleasant surprise. Food was miserably absent from my earlier visits to Cuba. In the 1970s, I recall driving around at night with my government “minders’”—officials assigned to escort me on my pre-conference research tour—while I searched in vain for some place to dine.  In 1995, the few decrepit state-run stores that redeemed ration allowances were bare, literally.

Today, there is an abundance of stylish privately-owned paladares (restaurants) serving lobster, shrimp, pork, chicken, and, of course, rice and beans. Farmers markets have also popped up across the country, loaded with plantains, mangoes, giant squashes, and potatoes. I was reminded of Myanmar–where food is plentiful and delicious, but where the locals also the lack cash and material goods to enjoy all the flavors and spice.

The Doctor Diaspora: The stories of Cuba’s success in providing universal health care are legendary, but I was struck by just how important the country’s focus on healthcare is. Most remarkable is that Cuba’s largest foreign exchange earner is the export of doctors–earning some $8.2 billion a year. Underpinning this global outreach is a community-centered healthcare system at home, with doctors, nurses, and clinics that provide services to everyone. Forty percent of Cuba’s GDP, in fact, goes to healthcare and education. I had to ask myself what other socialist countries had made such a spectacular specialty of providing universal healthcare. I thought of China, and the deplorable state into which its healthcare has fallen since it dispersed with socialist medicine in the 1980s and opted for a for-profit system.

The search for a better economic model: Cuban officials are finally looking at their tired system and have concluded that the overly centralized, state-owned economy—not just the U.S. embargo—is the source of their ills. But progress is still slow and half-hearted when it comes to private participation and decentralization of SOEs. The economy is impossibly lopsided due to the wave of dollar remittances coming from Cuban Americans abroad, and Cubans who have no access to these remittances find themselves on the losing end. They live threadbare lives with limited food rations and poor salaries—a doctor, for example, makes a derisory sum of $26 a month— while the remittance-receiving half of the population is saving to buy houses and dining at the paladores.

Buying time: The authorities are concerned that as the opening with the U.S. progresses, they will be in a race against time to create a better economic balance. Few socialist countries have been able to change their systems with ease. The embargo is unwittingly helping Cuban authorities manage the pace of change, but when normalization comes, it is sure to be disruptive.

That said, normalization may not be destabilizing. There are no signs of tension on the street–no police and no crime, though there is a burgeoning black market for items ranging from food to entertainment. Raul Castro is well-regarded—for his sober demeanor and attention to detail—unlike Fidel who favored improvisational policies. In fact, the opening of the economy is seen as Raul’s signature achievement.

Cuba exists in an odd universe. Fifty-five years of socialism have left it without the structures it needs to live under capitalism, such as a workable financial system, clear rules for imports and exports, and a modern code for doing business, to name a few. Hopefully, our two negotiators will remain clear about the bottom line—the need to get rid of a policy that has failed both the U.S. and Cuba. The best surprise they could deliver would be reasonable solutions that can enable the two countries to put aside their long-standing enmity and find ways to engage.



Rosemary Werrett serves as Director of Business Development at the Observatory Group and the Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for the World Policy Institute.

[Photo courtesy of World Policy Institute]

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