Protests in CubaJuly is an especially notable month in Cuban history. Cuba witnessed its largest mass protests in July 1994, when thousands protested due to a major economic crisis that the fall of the Soviet Union brought on. Now, on the weened of July 10, 2021, thousands of Cubans protested in the streets of its major cities due to food shortages, extreme inflation and authoritarian communist rule. The COVID-19 pandemic has only made extreme poverty and repressive government rule worse on the island. Many Cubans at the protests spoke out about starving and having no basic survival resources.

How Age Influences Cubans’ Views on the Communist Government

The recent protests in Cuba are much more complicated than they first appear. According to a man who refused to identify himself in fear of retaliation, younger Cubans tend to vehemently oppose the communist regime due to the lack of food, medicine and electricity. A 17-year-old protester said that the population was protesting because they were hungry and poor. The man noted how there is a lack of resources on the island. Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel announced over a nationwide television broadcast that the protests needed to end. He called on the communists to deliver a “revolutionary response” to the destabilization of the island.

In response to Diaz-Canel’s message, older Cubans, in support of the government and the military and police, blocked off young anti-government protesters in their attempt to occupy vital parts of Havana. Pro-government supporters, some armed with wooden clubs, expressed their ties to Cuban patriotism and supported the security officials in quelling the anti-government protests. Pro-government supporters accused the younger protesters of taking a stand against communism by working as paid mercenaries for the United States. The U.S. spends approximately $20 million annually to support “democracy promotion” in Cuba.

How and Why the Protests Happened

Both economic and health crises largely drive the protests in Cuba. The COVID-19 pandemic and economic measures that the communist government took have made many Cubans’ living situations dire. Throughout 2020, Cuba held the pandemic in check, however, recently, virus cases increased rapidly. Cuba reported 6,750 new cases and 31 new deaths on July 11. However, opposition groups note that the true statistics are most likely much worse. Many Cubans have reported that their relatives died at home without receiving the care they needed to have a chance at survival by citing medical negligence.

The Cuban tourism industry has come to a standstill since the beginning of the pandemic, consequently creating a massive hole in the Cuban economy. Hyperinflation, electricity blackouts, food shortages and a lack of everyday necessities are widespread throughout the island. Economic reforms at the start of 2021 increased worker wages while also causing a major spike in prices. Cuban economists, including Pavel Vidal, believe that prices could rise in Cuba by as much as between 500% and 900% within the next few months. Cuban banks additionally stopped accepting cash deposits of U.S. currency. Many economists viewed this as the most severe restriction put on U.S. currency since the rule of Fidel Castro.

Internet access and mobilizing young people through Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were essential in getting the protests started. In 1994, very few Cubans living outside of Havana knew that protests were taking place. Young Cubans have expressed their disdain for the communist regime on social media for years. The Cuban regime has deactivated the internet on the island to stop the unrest.

US Officials’ Response and Cuba’s Future

President Biden called the protests in Cuba a clarion call for freedom and noted that Americans wholeheartedly support Cubans in their fight for freedom. The acting assistant secretary for the state for western hemisphere affairs, Julie Chung, expressed her support in a tweet commending the peaceful protests and Cuban concerns with the multiple crises they face.

Foreign aid to Cuba from the United States and the international community has been minimal in recent years and throughout the islands’ history. This is because the communist leaders would take all of the money and resources for themselves while refusing to distribute them to people in need. The $20 million the U.S. currently spends to support democracy promotion efforts in Cuba is a start. To liberate the Cuban people and end extreme poverty on the island, the United States and the international community need to do whatever they can to help keep the protests going.

– Curtis McGonigle
Photo: Wikipedia Commons

 

The Impact of COVID-19 on Poverty in Cuba
The COVID-19 pandemic backpedaled Cuba’s progress in eradicating poverty and food insecurity, similar to many other countries. As the largest island within the Caribbean, tourism plays a large role in the economy. Although travel restrictions are no longer in place, the country’s reliance on food imports and poor infrastructure have worsened the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Cuba.

Cuba Before COVID-19

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), Cuba is one of the most successful countries to achieve the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Government-implemented social programs provide maternal healthcare, monthly feeding baskets and free lunch for children in more than 10,000 schools. However, 70 to 80% of Cuba’s food requirements come from food imports, and this reliance lessens the national budget.

A consistently strained national budget, coupled with an economy in the midst of crisis, ultimately exacerbated the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Cuba. Well before COVID-19 hit the island, the Trump administration initiated sanctions banning U.S. travel and commerce with Cuban businesses. This strained the economy even further.

The Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE) reports that poverty in Cuba is long-caused by the inaccessibility that Cubans have to basic needs. For example, the real-median state wages continuously fall and pensions do not align with food requirements. Also, the price of basic utilities continues to increase. The social assistance services are helpful, but they are not always accessible or upheld with the utmost quality.

Cuba’s Handling of COVID-19

Cuba’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the most effective within the Caribbean. Free universal healthcare and large numbers of medical personnel are among the reasons that the island’s pandemic-related mortality rates are much lower than some of their neighboring countries. Cuba had approximately 151 cumulative deaths in January 2021, while Jamaica had approximately 312. At the same time, though, the government’s control of the media makes some skeptical as to whether or not the number of cases is accurate.

Cuba has the largest ratio of doctors to citizens in the world, with 84 doctors for every 10,000 citizens. Through the Continuous Assessment and Risk Evaluation (CARE) System, doctors can regularly track, assess and isolate outbreaks of the disease by visiting patients directly. Beginning in 1984, community-based medicine connects doctors and nurses to roughly 150 families. The CARE system furthers the impact of this model by ensuring that doctors carry out preemptive medical measures continuously.

The Persistence of Poverty

The issue of poverty in Cuba comes by way of poor infrastructure, food instability and a persisting housing crisis. As mentioned previously, food imports make up a large portion of the island’s food consumption. Reuters reports that before the pandemic, Cuba began seeing a decline in the number of food imports. This was due to Venezuela putting a cap on the aid it was providing. The Trump administration’s tightening of the United States trade embargo also impacted the number of food imports. In turn, the pandemic worsened the already existent food shortage.

In addition to the shortage of food, much of the basic infrastructure strains the country’s ability to quickly respond to conflict, leaving many unassisted during crisis. The island is also susceptible to tropical storms, which worsens the housing crisis. Many Cuban homes are unable to withstand extreme weather conditions. Many Cubans are also unable to afford damage repair. Cuba also suffers from a deficit of houses, with leads to the issue of overcrowding in shelters.

Only 1% of Cuban households have access to the internet. In turn, many people are unable to purchase their essential items online and must endure in-person contact. Even with social distancing and isolation mandates in order, those living in poverty are generally unable to abide by these standards due to the nature of their work or fiscal inability. The culmination of these factors worsens the impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Cuba.

Positive Insights

The emergence of effective vaccines and the efficacy of the CARE system serves as an inspiration for other countries in the fight against the pandemic. The Cuban-developed Abdala vaccine is said to be 92.28% effective in the last stages of its clinical trials. The Soberena-2 vaccine, another Cuban-developed vaccine, has an effectiveness of 62% with two of its three doses. Cuba’s extensive medical research, along with its use of community-based healthcare, model how preventative healthcare can become readily accessible to communities in the midst of a crisis.

The impact of COVID-19 on poverty in Cuba remains an issue to be resolved, but the island is on the pathway to returning to life pre-pandemic. More than 1 million children returned to school in September 2020, and fully vaccinated tourists can now visit the island.

With the island’s newfound knowledge and insights on how to adequately handle the plights of a pandemic, hope exists that Cuba will soon continue the progress it once made in eradicating poverty and food insecurity.

– Cory Utsey
Photo: Flickr

How Hurricanes Impact Poverty in CubaCuba and its capital city, Havana, must battle a rising threat: hurricane season. While many may think of Cuba as a vacation destination, Cuba is home to an aging population dependent on agricultural exports with a general lack of everyday necessities. Moreover, a significant number of Cuban citizens live in poverty. Increasing numbers of natural disasters only exacerbate this issue. Hurricanes impact poverty in Cuba and reduce the country’s ability to respond. Just recently, on July 5, hurricane Elsa hit Cuba with winds of over 60 mph. While overall damages were minimal, Elsa is merely one example of the growing annual threat.

Poverty in Cuba

Poverty in Cuba looks distinctively different from poverty across the world. For instance, Cuba has a planned economy, dependent on its agricultural and tourism sectors, with many social programs like universal access to healthcare, education and entertainment. However, while unemployment rates are low and poverty data is largely unknown, the Center of Humans and Democracy estimates that 66% of Cuban households receive less than $100 per month. Half of those families subsist on less than $1.33 a day.

Because of widespread poverty and an outdated healthcare system, COVID-19 posed a significant risk to the Cuban population and economy. Throughout 2020, Cuba experienced multiple food shortages, including staples such as chicken, eggs and rice. As a result of the pandemic, economists expected GDP to fall by 6% in Cuba.

How Do Hurricanes Aggravate Poverty in Cuba?

The simple answer to how hurricanes impact poverty in Cuba is that hurricanes are costly. Repairing infrastructure and housing damages requires an impressive governmental response. For example, in 2005, Hurricane Dennis caused Cuba an estimated $1.4 billion in damage, destroying 120,000 homes and killing 16 Cuban citizens. Cities like Havana were without power for several days. Additionally, more than 20% of the country was without water for an extended period. The U.S. and EU offered disaster relief aid to Cuba, but the Cuban government rejected both offers.

However, it’s more complicated than the mere cost. Oftentimes, powerful hurricanes hurt Cuba’s agricultural sector by destroying crops that are critical to Cuba’s economy. This makes it even harder to respond to the initial damages. Hurricane Dennis resulted in significant damage to Cuban agriculture, specifically to the citrus, fruit and vegetable industries. The storm destroyed 30,000 acres of bananas and 127,000 tons of vegetables. Economic losses like these ones inhibit Cuba’s overall disaster response and economic rebound.

Hurricane Irma and its Impact on Poverty in Cuba

Similar to Hurrican Dennis, in 2017, Hurricane Irma destroyed more than 4,000 homes on Cuba’s coast, severely damaging the country’s electoral grid and disrupting its agricultural industry. Hurricane Irma destroyed 7,400 acres of banana, rice and sugar crops across Cuba. The damage resulted in a food shortage, an exacerbation of poverty and a decline in the agricultural sector that plagued Cuba throughout the following months.

Not only do hurricanes cost billions of dollars in repairs and damages, but they consistently damage crops, constrict the country’s agricultural economy and hinder the country’s ability to fund an appropriate response. Hurricanes impact poverty in Cuba by constricting the country’s economic resources, response and food supply.

Additionally, scientists predict natural disasters and tropical storms are likely to increase as a result of climate change. In the coming years, Cuba will likely experience more storms, more agricultural disruptions and a higher need for a stronger response.

Hurricane Preparedness and Recovery

While Cuba is already a world leader in hurricane preparedness and recovery, increased storms will require a re-evaluated response. As another hurricane season reaches Cuba’s shore this summer, the country and its government must consider what more can be done to react to these potential threats.

After Hurricane Irma, Floridians, many with family in Cuba, mobilized to form nonprofits like the CubaOne foundation to help the country and its citizens recover from the natural disaster. CubaOne raised $50,000 for relief and sent more than 40 volunteers to help rebuild some of the areas most affected by the storm. While hurricanes aggravate poverty in Cuba, network responses and relief like these will aid Cuba in overcoming the effects of natural disasters.

– Zoe Tzanis
Photo: Flickr

Cuba's Abdala Vaccine, 4 Things To KnowCuba’s political and economic conditions have long been mysterious due to the little information the government publishes. While Cubans have access to free healthcare and education, the country is still impoverished. According to The World Bank, there is no official information available regarding how many Cubans live in poverty; however, estimates put the poverty rate anywhere from 5% to 26% and the extreme poverty at around 15% in Cuba’s urban areas. The lack of tourism caused by the pandemic has worsened economic conditions in Cuba, providing an incentive to create an effective vaccine. Cuba has produced and begun administering a homegrown vaccine, making it one of the smallest countries to do so. Here are four things to know about Cuba’s Abdala vaccine.

4 Things to Know About the Abdala Vaccine

  1. Local authorities say it’s 92% effective: According to Cuban health authorities, the Abdala vaccine is roughly 92% effective. Full efficacy requires three doses, according to the BioCubaFarma laboratory. Abdala is only one of five vaccines that Cuba is currently working on. Another is the Soberana 2 vaccine, which shows 62% efficacy after three doses.
  2. Not internationally approved: PAHO (Pan American Health Organization), a local office of the World Health Organization (WHO) for the Americas, urges Cuba to publish the data for the Abdala vaccine and seek approval from COVAX. In doing so, scientists worldwide can peer-review studies on the vaccine. Cuba has yet to provide data to the WHO or COVAX, sparking international concern about transparency and vaccine efficacy.
  3. Authorized in Cuba due to rising COVID-19 cases and a recession: COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Cuba, so the Abdala vaccine is already in use despite not being approved by the WHO. Following this, the Cuban government faced criticism from local medical associations and NGOs. Since November 2020, COVID-19 cases have increased due to the rise of tourism in the country. Moreover, as of June 18, Cuba has been running low on syringes to administer the vaccine, an especially disastrous shortage since the Abdala vaccine is given in three doses. Furthermore, the country is in a recession and is experiencing shortages of food, medicine and medical supplies.
  4. Authorized in Venezuela as well: The Abdala vaccine is now being administered in Venezuela, the first country to use the vaccine besides Cuba, despite the WHO and local medical authorities urging Venezuelans against it due to the lack of public information about the vaccine. In June, Venezuela received 30,000 doses of the Abdala vaccine, enough to vaccinate 10,000 people.

Cuba has been producing its own vaccines since the 1980s, including an impressive lung cancer vaccine now in clinical trials in the United States. However, Cuba has yet to submit the Abdala vaccine for peer review by the global scientific community. International health authorities worry about the lack of transparency on the science behind the vaccine, as well as its use in other countries. Through international cooperation, vaccine development and approval can commence faster. Hopefully, Cuba’s Abdala vaccine can soon be reviewed by global authorities, taking the international community one step further in alleviating the effects of COVID-19.

Ana Golden

Photo: Flickr

Human Trafficking in Cuba
Human trafficking in Cuba is a very present and ongoing issue. It has been on the rise for years, especially in regards to forced labor and government-sponsored labor export programs. Studies have revealed that the government forced and bribed as many as 30,000 Cuban doctors and medical professionals into human trafficking situations in over 50 countries. Traffickers frequently exploit Cuban victims abroad in South America and the Caribbean as well as the United States. They also exploit domestic and foreign victims in Cuba making the claim that it is to pay off travel debts.

The Problem

The Cuban government has instigated international medical missions that many refer to as a contemporary form of slavery. These have been a source of income for the Castro regime for years, with the Cuban government collecting income on each medical professional’s services. As a result, medical professionals in Cuba typically receive only a small portion of their money, which goes into accounts that they do not have control over. Research has shown that participants frequently do not receive adequate information about the conditions of their contracts before entering into them. The government even withholds some of their documents as a form of blackmail. The participants of these labor export programs often work long hours with no rest in dangerous living conditions.

Government involvement in human trafficking in Cuba has become apparent. This is due to the government’s lack of interest in addressing or eliminating these programs. The Cuban government is not making significant efforts to eliminate these practices. Because of this, it has received Tier 3 status in the U.S. Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons report due to how little it has done to eliminate human trafficking. However, efforts are in progress to eradicate these practices. Law enforcement criminalized some forms of labor trafficking and began prosecuting human traffickers. Additionally, international trafficking relating to forced labor or similar activities is now a punishable offense, potentially leading to the penalty of imprisonment from seven to 15 years. This is a deterrent to traffickers as statistics have shown a decline in prosecutions over the past few years.

Solutions

Some NGOs have identified trafficking victims to state authorities and provided them with psychological treatment. They also provided healthcare and other resources. Some of these NGOs include the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliation, the Prevention and Social Assistance Commission and the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

The FMC began in 1960, involving itself in the human trafficking situation in Cuba shortly after. The Cuban Commission of Human Rights and Reconciliation revealed in an interview in 2017 that it had actively become involved in monitoring arrests of traffickers, and even suggested that specific healthcare and education benefits can help reduce trafficking victims. It began in 1960 and has responded to internal and external threats with the goal of unifying the people.

The Cuban government funded protection and guidance centers for families who human traffickers had victimized. There are at least seven global anti-trafficking organizations working to provide relief to victims of forced labor and modern-day slavery in Cuba and other countries worldwide. Although very small numbers of forced labor victims actually seek help, these organizations offer different policies and programs to offer support or benefits and help survivors resist re-traumatization. Cuban law authorized courts to allow restitution to trafficking victims.

US Involvement

In another attempt to address forced labor and human trafficking in Cuba, some U.S. Senators sent a letter to the Secretary of State expressing their concern about the forced labor and human trafficking situation in Cuba. They suggested ideas such as directing U.S. Embassies to different countries to advise and inform them on Cuba’s forced labor programs.

The Cuban government involves people in forced labor and labor export programs. However, some human traffickers are now experiencing prosecution for their crimes. In addition, help became readily available to victims of human trafficking and U.S. officials have increased their involvement.

Annamarie Perez
Photo: Flickr

Las Damas de BlancoLas Damas de Blanco (The Ladies in White) is a peaceful civic movement of wives and female relatives advocating for the release of jailed political protestors in Cuba. The group has been active since 2003 and is internationally acclaimed for its dedication to human rights advocacy, having won the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2005. Currently, the movement is the subject of a resolution on the Senate calendar.

History of Las Damas de Blanco

Las Damas de Blanco formed in 2003 following an event known as the Black Spring. The Black Spring was a mass arrest of 75 journalists and political protestors in Cuba. Each of the arrested had either spoken out against the Castro regime or advocated for democracy in some way. The people arrested ranged from librarians to human rights activists who were all peaceful in the dissent and yet were arrested for threatening Cuban national security. In response to the arrests, the wives and sisters of the protestors decided to band together and form a countermovement. Every Sunday, the women gather and attend mass wearing white, and then, march silently through the streets. The white clothing symbolizes peace and the message is centered on family and freedom.

Overcoming Barriers

As a women-led movement, Las Damas de Blanco faces many challenges in its advocacy efforts. The movement is agitated by other citizens and particularly by Cuban authorities. The Cato Institute reports that the women “are routinely harassed, threatened, beaten and arrested” for the peaceful protest. Despite this, the movement has never weakened. The Ladies in White continue to march every Sunday and the members have brought global awareness to the issue. All 75 of the protestors arrested in the Black Spring were freed by 2011, in large part due to the efforts of the Ladies in White. The women-led movement still protests consistently and will not cease until all Cuban political prisoners are freed.

US Recognition

In March 2021, Sen. Mark Rubio introduced a resolution honoring Las Damas de Blanco and adding the Senate’s voice to the call for the release of all political prisoners in Cuba. The resolution acknowledges the efforts of the women-led movement and the Cuban regime’s consistent attacks on the movement. It particularly honors the legacy of the movement’s founder, Laura Ines Pollán Toledo, on human rights advocacy.

A more recent event highlighted in the resolution is the second arrest of Las Damas de Blanco member, Xiomara de las Mercedes Cruz Miranda, which took place in 2018 and resulted in Miranda developing a rare skin disease in prison. Miranda’s health deteriorated and she was hospitalized in Cuba for more than six months. In 2020, the U.S. government granted Miranda a humanitarian visa and transferred her to a hospital in Miami.

The resolution’s direct calls for the Cuban government to release all political prisoners and allow Las Damas de Blanco to attend mass in peace are vital actions of solidarity. If it is agreed to in the Senate, the resolution will further amplify the voices of Las Damas de Blanco and all peaceful Cuban dissidents hoping for liberty.

Samantha Silveira
Photo: Flickr

Child Poverty in Cuba
Cuba is home to an impressive school system that aids the fight against child poverty. This developed as a result of the communist government which made a point of increasing literacy rates and education overall. Despite these efforts, child poverty in Cuba continues to affect the youngest inhabitants of the island.

During the “Special Period” after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba experienced widespread food insecurity and a lack of essential materials such as gas for transportation and medicine. Cubans refer to this time period between 1991 and 2000 as the “Special Period” because of the abrupt decline in food security. The situation began to improve when, in 2000, Venezuela began aiding the island. Today, the effects of the “Special Period” continue to affect child poverty in Cuba.

The Health of Children in Cuba

Examining the health of children can be helpful in indicating how severe child poverty is in a country. According to the UNICEF country profile for Cuba, in 2019, 5.1 children per 1,000 live births under the age of 5 died. In comparison to the lowest rates in the world in countries like Iceland and Norway, Cuba has substantial room for improvement. It is important to note that since the year 2000, the under-5 child mortality rate has dropped from 8.769 children per 1,000 live births to the 2019 rate.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has cited the most common causes of under-5 child mortality as infectious diseases, birth anomalies and complications. Notably, infectious diseases are often treatable and preventable. In Cuba, infant mortality is falling but perinatal disorders cause 80% of deaths.

In Cuba, the Global Nutrition Report found that only 17% of children aged 0 months to 59 months received hydration treatment when they had diarrhea. This is concerning considering that WHO cites diarrhea as a leading cause of under-5 child mortality. In 2014, the World Bank reported that 60.9% of children who had diarrhea in the two weeks preceding the survey received treatment. This implies that more than one-third of children who have diarrhea do not receive treatment in Cuba.

Additionally, low birth weights are rising slightly in occurrence in Cuba. A graph in the Global Nutrition Report depicts the trend. Between 2000 and 2010, the prevalence of children with low birth rates dropped. In 2010, 5.2% of children were born underweight and in 2015, reports stated that 5.3% were underweight. This change is small but may signify poor nutrition for expectant mothers, affecting the size of their children upon birth.

Education in Cuba

Education, another measure of the severity of child poverty, provides promising numbers for Cuba. Mass education of the public is a main focus of the Cuban government as a result of its campaign against the U.S. and has been since the 1959 Cuban Revolution. The reported numbers show that this focus has paid off in terms of mass education, though.

Poverty can significantly affect education. A study reported that poverty can affect how ready a child is for school and whether they can succeed academically. Cuban children are generally doing well in schools. UNESCO reported a decrease in illiteracy (the report determined that only 1,933 people aged 15-24 were illiterate in 2012). These rates are a reflection of the education system when those people were learning literacy.

The Novak Djokovic Foundation reported that primary school is compulsory in Cuba. This means that a vast majority (UNICEF reported that 99% of children complete primary school) of Cuban kids attend school. This statistic implies that many kids do not complete primary school.

Despite this effective system, one can see child poverty in Cuba through education as well. UNICEF reported that only 48% of children under the age of 5-years-old have more than three age-appropriate books in their household.

Solutions

Foreign charities are working in Cuba to help meet impoverished children’s needs. Specifically, the organization Inspire Cuba worked on a project called Shoes That Grow, which provided shoes to children in Havana, Cuba. These shoes are adjustable so that a child can use them for up to five years. Meanwhile, the MDG Achievement Fund has been working with the Cuban government to fight anemia in Cuba. The program the MDG Achievement Fund implemented is called the Joint Programme, which has been attempting to increase Cuban people’s access to food filled with micronutrients. Finally, while no in-depth descriptions exist of what social programs the Cuban government enacted to fight food insecurity, organizations such as the World Food Programme (WFP) have cited that social programs largely eradicated hunger and poverty on the island, including the poverty and hunger of children.

As previous reports have noted, Cuba has made advancements in the education and health of its children (decreasing under-5 mortality rate and high literacy rates), overall reducing child poverty in Cuba. It is important to note that while child poverty in the country has improved, holes still exist in the system, such as a lack of diarrhea treatment for sick children and limited educational materials. However, through continued efforts, child poverty in Cuba should become even less prevalent.

– Susan Morales
Photo: Flickr

Cuba's Private Sector
A couple of days after the closing of the Cuban border, 16,000 private workers, upon sensing danger, requested the labor ministry suspend their licenses so they could avoid paying taxes. That number rose to 119,000, 19% of the private workforce, in a few more days and threatened to annihilate the Cuban economy. The implementation of the global travel restrictions had a devasting impact on the country’s tourism sector, which is the second-largest revenue generator for the island nation. As a result, selective private businesses took a massive hit and the government lost a crucial foundation for foreign exchange. By December 2020, Cuban tourism had fallen by 16.5%, followed by an 11% drop in the country’s GDP. Worried by the lingering economic collapse, the government began opening Cuba’s private sector, providing Cubans with self-employment opportunities and allowing them to operate businesses in added sectors.

What Did the Government Do?

Previously, the communist-led government allowed Cubans to participate in merely 127 officially approved private sector activities. Some of the legalized activities included working as a barber, working in gastronomy or transportation or renting rooms to tourists. To expand the private sector, the government eliminated the previous list of 127 activities. Instead, it created a new list of 124 jobs prohibited in the private sector. The rest of the 2,000 legal activities, which the government recognized, will be open to Cubans. In the past, state-owned businesses have always dominated the Cuban economy. However, the private sector has managed to make a mark over recent years. Presently, 635,000 people occupy the private sector, which is roughly 14% of the Cuban workforce. The introduction of the long-awaited economic reform might increase diversification in the private sector and could spur economic growth for Cuba.

The Effects on Cuba and its People

The economic reform will allow Cubans to partake in additional economic activities. It will help eradicate bureaucracy in the governmental arrangements, as the Cubans will no longer have to manipulate their business documentations to fall under the list of legalized activities. Now, they only have to confirm that they are not running any business from the list of prohibited activities.

Further, the liberalization of the private sector will bring about a change in the career patterns of Cubans. Previously, apart from the underpaid state-run jobs, the only other viable option for Cubans were low-skilled jobs. Now, Cubans will have countless other opportunities in technical fields like engineering and economics. Still, professional fields like medicine, law and teaching could open to state employees only. Additionally, the opening of the private sector will increase employment opportunities, which will rapidly develop the private sector. Private business owners currently make up 13% of Cuba’s workforce. This number will spike due to the relaxation of the private sector.

The Future of Cuba’s Economy

Ricardo Torres, a pro-reform economist at the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy, stated that the opening up of Cuba’s private sector will diversify jobs and boost the GDP. This, in turn, triggered a shift in economic arrangements in Cuba. But the chances of the private sector dominating the economy soon are bleak, mainly due to the political settings of Cuba. Therefore, expectations have determined that state-owned businesses will direct the economy. Rather than rushing into free-market forces, the Cuban government must seek inspiration from other countries and establish a solid institutional framework. Several European states, the U.S., Japan and other East Asian countries have proved that by focusing on macro and microeconomic policies and planning and investing in citizens, an economic upliftment should be possible.

Cuba’s Relationship with the US

The economy was booming under the Barack Obama Administration. Things, however, took a turn when former President Donald Trump overturned Obama’s agreement to ease travel restrictions on Cuba. Donald Trump also ended the U.S. cruise travel to Cuba, disallowed many Cuban Americans to send remittances back home, pressured a U.S.-run hotel out of Cuba, forced countries not to hire Cuban doctors and nurses during the pandemic and re-enlisted Cuba on the list of countries that sponsor state terrorism. Cuban businesses suffered a great deal due to this. The labor reform could not have been timelier for the Cuban government as it could present a sturdy case for amendments in the U.S. policy.

One of Obama’s main objectives was to expand the private sector in Cuba. Therefore, on the back of the opening of the private sector and the appointment of Joe Biden as President, the Cuban government can look to persuade the U.S. to consider a policy reform. Although Cuban had to wait a long time for labor reform, it is crucial to mend unemployment rates, boost the GDP and restore Cuba’s unsteady economy through Cuba’s private sector.

– Prathamesh Mantri
Photo: Flickr

Baseball and Poverty
The story is almost stereotypical. A young athlete escapes an unpredictable future in their birth country with nothing but their talent and a dream. Then, they climb the ranks to achieve fame and glory. Major League Baseball star Yasiel Puig fits this story. He journeyed from Cienfuegos, Cuba to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds – in the most competitive league on Earth.

Such a story is curious if not a reminder that ideological battles between governments hurt citizens most. Also, it shows that American foreign policy must work to cohesively integrate poverty-stricken countries into the global economy, and not only for the benefit of talent exchange. Add the fact that Puig’s reach quickly spanned beyond baseball – to the Wild Horse Children’s Foundation, which has the mission of inspiring “children and families in underserved communities” and one has a picture of how baseball and poverty can interact.

Humble Beginnings

Although Cuba’s poverty statistics are difficult to pin down, Yasiel Puig was born in a challenging environment, to say the least. In fact, his home country had “limited access to food, transportation, electrical power and other necessities.” Meanwhile, most Cuban salaries are around $20 per month.

Puig was born to “an educated but poor family” 150 miles southeast of Havana and began playing baseball at 9 years old. His immense and bombastic talent landed him on the Cienfuegos Camaroneros and the Cuban National B team, which paid him $17 a month. It was here that his story both deviated from that of typical athletes and also melded into the often-told Cuban fairy tale, one where baseball and poverty do not interact as much as fuel one another.

Daring Tracks

During an international tournament in Rotterdam, Puig and teammate Gerardo Concepción attempted to defect. Only Concepción succeeded though and Yasiel entered a kind of patriotic recidivism. Attempted Cuban defectors can experience imprisonment and other perilous actions if authorities catch them.

Puig then set his sights on escaping again (some estimate half a dozen times). He endured a harrowing trip out of Cuba, eventually landing in Mexico and establishing residency. This made him eligible for a Major League Baseball team to sign him. Although the specifics of the path are fascinating, involving the drug cartel Los Zetas, human traffickers and allegations of torture and bribery, they are also distressing. Puig understandably skirts talking about it. Nonetheless, at age 21 he received a rebirth. A Dodger scout signed him to a seven-year, $42 million contract and invited him to the United States to begin his Major League career.

Superstardom

Twelve months later, Puig had one of the most explosive entrances in the history of baseball. Thirty days in, he launched 44 hits, second only to Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio, and ended his rookie season with a .319 batting average, 19 home runs and a .925 OPS. The statistics complimented his style of play, which some describe as ebullient. This led legendary broadcaster Vin Scully to nickname Puig the ‘wild horse’ for his bombastic energy. In his first full year in the big leagues, he was an All-Star and the rest was history. Through talent and extraordinary luck, he was able to establish a sense of security for himself. The story of baseball and poverty indeed offered an impetus for his success.

Giving Back

All of this led to his idea for the Wild Horse Children’s Foundation, which had its first event in the Dominican Republic in 2016. Over 250 families in the Santo Domingo area received food and supplies for the holiday season. Two years later, he sponsored a trip back to Cuba that raised awareness for underserved communities and distributed baseball gear to children. From his humble beginnings in Cienfuegos to auspicious times in the United States, Puig kept kids and their wellbeing through sport in his mind. “I started the foundation because I want to help the people in Los Angeles and Miami and the Dominican Republic.”

Ultimately, Yasiel Puig’s story is only half-written. He has many years left to play baseball and widen his influence with the Wild Horse Children’s Foundation. The circuitous path out of poverty is one that players know well in the Major Leagues, especially players from Cuba. His commitment to helping those in the position he was once is a shining achievement.

Spencer Daniels
Photo: Flickr

Hunger in Cuba
Cuba’s geographic position in the Caribbean leaves it vulnerable to annual natural disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes and heavy rain. Natural disasters have cost Cuba more than 20 billion USD since 2011, a cost that greatly impacts Cuba’s overall food security. Despite this, Cuba has consistently scored “low” (less than 5) on the Global Hunger Index (GHI) since 2005. A GHI score of <5 indicates that less than 10% of the population suffers from hunger, calculated by national rates of undernourishment, child wasting and stunting and child mortality. Hunger in Cuba has stabilized at 2.50% since 2002.

While still under the 10% line and decreasing, Cuba’s child stunting indicators are much higher than its other indicators. In 2005, child stunting was 4.8% higher than the next-highest indicator, child wasting, and still 2.7% higher in 2019. According to Cuba’s Food Security and Nutrition Monitoring System, 31.6% of two-year-olds suffered from anemia in 2015.

Social Programs in Cuba

Many social programs in Cuba rely heavily on food importation and foreign aid from Venezuela and the U.S. Up to 80% of Cuba’s food is imported. The majority of food importation, about 67%, goes toward government social programs. This leads to long distribution lines for basic food products like rice, vegetables, eggs and meat. These lines for individual food products can last up to five hours as people wait to purchase groceries with government-issued ration books. Waiting for one ingredient at a time leads to some households choosing certain food products over others and reducing their nutrient diversity.

Fortunately, international and local organizations are also stepping in to help. Here are four organizations working to addressing hunger in Cuba.

  1. The World Food Programme: The World Food Programme (WFP) is working hard to improve nutrient diversity and reduce Cuban reliance on international imports. The WFP provides nutritional and food safety education programs for pregnant and nursing women, children and seniors. The organization also helps local producers and processors of beans improve the competitive pricing of their products. Additionally, the WFP collaborates with the Cuban government to develop a food security analysis program in conjunction with Cuba’s natural disaster response plan.
  2. The Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere: Smaller organizations strive to help Cuba improve its food security as well. The Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE), for instance, helps Cuban farmers revive farmland and establish sustainable food production practices, which will improve crop returns and overall food security over time.
  3. The West India Committee: Similar to CARE, the West India Committee provides education and training to farmers to help keep farmland productive and efficient over a longer period of time.
  4. The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba: The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (FHR Cuba) has a different approach. FHR Cuba focuses on creating economic incentives to start and maintain small businesses, including livestock and agricultural farms. FHR Cuba gives out microcredit loans between $100 and $600 to applicants for business supplies. Participants are then required to file a monthly report. So far, the initiative has funded 70 entrepreneurs. All have been able to successfully repay their loan as their businesses take off.

Political and Economic Context

Recent political fighting and economic hardships have led to food shortages and new government-issued rations. These go beyond the already-existing food rations allotted per family. Since 2000, Cuba has relied on Venezuelan oil, but economic collapse in Venezuela caused the aid in oil exports from that region to be cut in half. Cuba relied on selling Venezuelan oil for hard currency to trade internationally for products like food.

Additionally, after Cuba affirmed diplomatic support for Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, the U.S. imposed strict sanctions. The U.S. sanctions have caused food prices to soar as Cuba seeks new, more expensive suppliers. Additionally, the national production of food fell in response to the economic crisis, exacerbated by COVID-19 and plummeting tourism.

Improving Food Security

Cuba is seeking to improve its future food security by asking citizens to grow their own gardens and produce their own food. Due to how much of food is imported from abroad, very little food is produced in Cuba itself. For example, Cuba missed the mark of 5.7 million domestic demand for eggs by 900,000 eggs in March 2019, while Cuba’s main homegrown agricultural exports are luxuries like sugar and tobacco. Havana reportedly already produces 18% of its agricultural consumption, while other areas are only starting to begin farming and gardening initiatives. As agricultural supplies are also largely imported, Cubans must rely on organic farming techniques like “worm composting, soil conservation and the use of biopesticides.”

In conclusion, while Cuba has a long track record of preventing widespread hunger, the country needs to find new solutions to combat hunger in Cuba in the face of recent challenges like COVID-19 and faltering foreign aid. With the help of economic creativity like microloans and improving competitive bean prices, sustainable farming techniques taught by WFP, CARE and others and measures already in place to reduce Cuba’s reliance on food imports, Cuba has shown that it already has the infrastructure in place to meet these challenges.

Elizabeth Broderick
Photo: Flickr