Ariel Maceo Tellez walks through Jaimanitas, west of Havana, Cuba, and says its sidewalks are full of ghosts. On the corners, full of memories, he has almost no friends anymore because most have desperately thrown themselves into the sea to escape the economic hardships and political repression that prevail on the island.
"In the Cuban population, everyone who can is emigrating. In the last year, 300,000 people have fled misery and hunger. Many friends of mine put together some boards and jump into the sea because they prefer to fight sharks than spend another day in this hell," says Tellez, a 36-year-old Cuban poet, in a telephone interview with Noticias Telemundo.
According to U.S. government data, 224,607 Cubans, more than 2 percent of the island's 11 million inhabitants, migrated to the United States in 2022.
The communist Caribbean island, home to just over 11 million people, made global news again this week when U.S. media reports reported that the government signed a multibillion-dollar deal with China to set up a large secret spy center on its territory, just 90 miles from Florida.
Rosa Lopez, a Cuban woman, shows off her refrigerator before cooking for her grandchildren amid gas shortages in Mariel, Cuba, on May 18, 2023. Ramon Espinosa / AP
Although the news was denied by Cuban officials, and the White House said the reports are "inaccurate," citizens like Andrea Rodriguez, mother of two children ages 6 and 7, are not keeping Chinese espionage and geopolitical concerns up at night.
"What keeps me from sleeping is when my kids wake up hungry and I don't even have a sweet potato to give them. That breaks my soul," he explains desperately.
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Reports indicate that China would pay Cuba billions of dollars for the installation of the base to allegedly spy on the United States. Analysts consulted by Noticias Telemundo believe that the communist government is making a series of efforts, previously unthinkable, to keep a plummeting economy afloat.
The rent of land to Russia for 30 years, the courtship of the community of émigrés, who have historically been rejected by revolutionary leaders, and the impulse of small and medium enterprises in a country that nationalized everything private after Fidel Castro took power are some of the contradictions that, according to researchers, They show the seriousness of the country's problems.
The red figures of the revolution
The island is being hit by one of the hardest crises in recent decades due to its slow-growing nationalized economy that is not recovering from the blow of the COVID-19 pandemic, a bumpy monetary reorganization, criticized state management and the tightening of sanctions imposed by the United States.
In a session of Congress held last month, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Planning, Alejandro Gil, admitted that year-on-year inflation at the end of April was 45.4%, while the accumulated reached 11.39%.
"In 2021 and 2022 inflation has grown more than 100% year-on-year, which is why prices have skyrocketed. There is no way to curb the deficit and indebtedness should be around 20% of the Gross Domestic Product. In addition, tourism is still 40% below the records of 2019, so it does not generate enough foreign currency and that has generated this nightmare," explains Elías Amor, a Cuban researcher and economist based in Spain.
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The constant rise in the prices of basic foodstuffs is one of the biggest problems facing the Cuban population. And the creation of stores in Freely Convertible Currency (MLC), a virtual currency that lives on cards reloadable from abroad, has accentuated the inequalities between those who receive remittances and those who do not.
It is in these stores, private for many, where some of the basic products that the Cuban State previously offered in establishments for Cuban pesos, the currency in which salaries are paid, are currently obtained.
"A normal salary is like 3,000 Cuban pesos, but an MLC costs 185 Cuban pesos. And, when you go to the stores, a package of chicken can cost you like 10 MLC, so to get chicken you have to give more than half of your salary. You can't buy what you need and it's very desperate," says Rodriguez.
In his speech at the Congress, Gil referred to the country's tourism crisis: by May 3, one million visitors had been received, 119% more than by that time in 2022, but only 51% of the amount of 2019.
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Shortages and rising costs, the black market and the resale of basic goods are impacting Cubans' purchasing power, which has historically been low. "You don't get things, and when you find them they're very expensive. Before, in Havana, a pound of lemon cost 5 or 10 Cuban pesos. Now you find it at 200, nobody can stand those prices," says Tellez.
More poverty, inequality and an unstoppable exodus
The UN estimates that Cuba imports 80% of the food it consumes and, according to official figures, after falling by 11% in 2020, the Gross Domestic Product barely rebounded by 1.3% in 2021 and last year closed at 2%.
"This crisis occurs in the midst of a growing stratification of society, increased poverty and inequality and mass exodus, as a result of the application of wrong budget and exchange rate policies and the development of an incipient oligarchic capitalism," summarizes Rafael Rojas, Cuban historian and academic at the Colegio de México.
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At the beginning of this year, the aggravated crisis was already very present in the daily lives of Cubans. That's what made Anyell Valdés, a Cuban woman, take her children to an expensive Havana restaurant, where they dined on lobster, knowing she couldn't pay the bill. The woman said it was an act of protest against inflation and shortages.
"I focused on what my kids wanted to eat, not what it cost," she said in an interview with Noticias Telemundo.
Analysts such as Amor and Rojas, among others, believe that the effects of the intense economic crisis have caused the Cuban government to undertake a series of desperate measures to try to reduce the discontent felt in the streets of Cuban populations.
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"After all the hierarchs told us, all the sacrifice and misery, this is the hunger revolution," Tellez said discouragedly.
Renting land to Russia
The alliance between Moscow and Havana received a new boost last May, after both countries endorsed the will to strengthen the Russian financial and business presence on the island with measures such as exemption from tariffs, land concessions for 30 years and ties between their banking systems.
Rojas maintains his reservations with the reforms to attract Russian investments, especially in strategic areas such as agriculture and in banking and finance.
In all this Russian move there is a lot of pretense, propaganda and pressure."
Rafael Rojas Historian
"I don't think that, in the current context, a subsidiary relationship like with the Soviet Union is sought. That is why the Russians, through the Stolypin Institute, are demanding structural reforms on the island. If these reforms are implemented, we will have to assess their concrete results because in all this Russian move there is a lot of simulation, propaganda and pressure on the United States and Europe, so that they relax their ties with the island, "warns the historian.
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Despite the time that has passed, the 1962 crisis that brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war over the installation of nuclear launch pads and missiles in Cuba is still remembered. Not all Cubans welcome the presence of Russians in the country.
"This is supposed to be a sovereign revolution, the leaders are talking about independence. And now it turns out that, just like in the '60s and '70s, we're handing the country over to the Russians," says Tellez.
For his part, Amor sees the plans for economic ventures between Russia and Cuba as a "great simulation." He warns that in the past such initiatives have not yielded good results because the Russians are pragmatic in their policies and the serious deficiencies of the Cuban economy require profound changes, both financial and political.
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"I think that all this land leasing stuff, that the Russians are going to take care of small and medium-sized enterprises, and that they are going to produce sugar is a lie. The problems of the Cuban economy are not going to be solved by the Americans or the Russians, they have to be solved by the Cubans," he explains.
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In the recent past, and since economic problems have become an unavoidable challenge, some Cuban officials have called for the diaspora of millions of citizens who have left the island to invest in the country.
This has been seen by some analysts as proof of the plight of the communist regime that still tends to label Cubans in exile and those who oppose the Castro revolution as "worms."
Fidel Castro's speech in 1980, when the Mariel exodus occurred and some 125,000 Cubans escaped from the island, is famous, where he said that the country could do without Cubans disaffected by the process: "We do not want it, we do not need it," said the then president.
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In 2019, a Foreign Investment Law was passed that, for the first time, allowed Cubans living abroad to invest in some companies.
But despite efforts to attract potential emigrated investors, economist Elías Amor assures that "as long as the communist regime is maintained and does not evolve towards a system of freedoms and democracy, I believe that no Cuban in the diaspora, including myself, will have the slightest interest in investing absolutely nothing. Your property can be expropriated at any time, your money can be taken from the bank or even imprisoned you."
MSMEs and silent privatization
In 2021, Cuba announced new laws regulating micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs), and an official highlighted on Twitter the "new opportunity for greater participation of Cubans living abroad in socio-economic development projects in Cuba."
"That call has been coming gradually since the Barack Obama years. However, the memory of the counter-reform of 2016 and 2017 is still fresh in the memory of many. This time, the attempt to take advantage of the capital of the diaspora in the relaunch of small business has against it a policy adverse to the diplomatic normalization of the Joe Biden Administration, which seems wrong to me, "says Rojas.
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Although 7,900 MSMEs have been approved in the year and a half in which they have been authorized, Minister Gil stressed that the island's socialist model is based on state companies and industries and stressed that 285 registered losses.
"In reality, these MSMEs are nothing more than a privilege. They are for a sector that is devoted to the regime and it is they who are making those profits, not the Cuban people. Those companies are not going to solve Cuba's problem because there are only about 8,000. Before 1959 there were 62,000 local businesses and you can't compete against that," says Tellez, the poet.
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As he wanders the empty streets of Jaimanitas and sees the sea that has taken away many of his friends, Tellez says it is inevitable to recall other past crises such as "El Maleconazo" when the communist regime seemed to be reeling from social unrest and the protests of 1994. "Our history is all about crises and difficulties, not achievements," he says.
In his verses, the writer recalls that crisis of the mid-nineties, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which seems more current than ever: "Not far from home something was happening that they called El Maleconazo./ Centro Habana was a cauldron with a pig inside boiling./ The happiness of this country was at stake/ but happiness never returned/ or never was/ or was/ but they shot it".