I’ve only visited Cuba once, in late 2013, so it’s hard to say for sure what kinds of changes Raul Castro has brought to the island since he took the wheel from his brother Fidel, but it appeared at that time that little had changed. Aside from a refurbished old quarter, Cuba looked like it was described in the 1980s or even the 1950s--though surely the urban decay is much more advanced now than it was in the 1950s.
James Bloodworth has been more than once, though, and says hardly anything has changed in the last five years. Here he is in The Daily Beast:
Perusing the drab shop fronts in Havana, resplendent with fly-blown posters of Che Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and other “heroes of the revolution,” I alighted on the self-evident problem with communism: Communist economies produce not what the worker needs but what a government bureaucrat has decided to make available for purchase.
The last time I visited Cuba, in 2010, the country was supposedly on the cusp of great change (at least if you were listening to the regime’s apologists in the Western media). Yet five years later and the “reforming” Cuba of Raul Castro looks almost identical to the country ruled despotically for almost half a century by his older brother. The Soviet-style shortages persist, listless youth continue to mope everywhere on street corners and the octopus-like tentacles of the state still reach into every corner of Cuban life.
Yet despite the increasingly cordial relationship between Raul Castro and Obama, the supposed changes in Cuba are almost entirely cosmetic. Indeed, on the streets of Havana the only discernible sign of transformation is the increasingly visible presence of a small but newly minted petit-bourgeoisie, tolerated by the Castro regime because (for the moment at least) it is unwilling to challenge the Stalinist center. Apart from this (though you wouldn’t know it from listening to White House press conferences) Cuba remains, as the revolutionary-turned-dissident Carlos Franqui once put it, “a world where the people are forced to work and to endure permanent rationing and scarcity, where they have neither rights nor freedoms.”
Dissidents are still sent to jail, but they don’t spend as much time there. Instead they are released earlier and sent home to live under total surveillance. It’s an improvement, I guess, but the nature of the regime hasn’t changed an iota. It’s not going to change as part of American-Cuban normalization, either.
The US normalized relations with Vietnam despite the lack of political freedom there, and it normalized relations with China back when Mao was still in charge. Nothing bad happened to the United States because of it, and nothing bad will happen to the United States as a result of normalizing relations with Cuba.
One could make the argument that everyday Cubans will benefit if the economy improves—it’s better to have bread without freedom than to have neither—but I’m not convinced that Raul Castro is ready to embark on a Vietnam- or China-style liberalization of the economy. Not if virtually nothing has changed while he has been in charge, and he has been in charge now for seven years—enough time to transform the economy drastically the way the Vietnamese have if he wanted to.
Bloodworth isn’t convinced either.
Havana is “opening up” because it wants hard currency and access to markets; the only ideology underpinning the Cuban revolution these days is self-preservation and replication, and for that the regime needs an injection of cash. This means that, as in the past, the Castro regime appears to be visibly loosening the screws; however, it is doing so with a wrench firmly in hand, ready to tighten them again once the economic storm has passed.
One thing that will change as a result of normalization, however, is that the government will no longer be able to blame the United States for the scarcity brought about by its own ecnomic imbecility.