U.S. Aid Package to Cuba
“The changes in Cuba are for more socialism,” reads a sign in Havana. As relations between the United States and Cuba become warmer, this statement reflects how the U.S. aid package to Cuba should strive to protect its notable accomplishments in human development.

An improved U.S. aid package to Cuba is essential, and with it must come certain qualifications and stipulations that benefit both the U.S. and Cuba.

But what exactly should Americans look for in the next set of policy changes toward the island nation? Here are three attributes to support for an improved U.S. aid package to Cuba.

1. Lifting restrictions on U.S.-backed NGOs

It is true that Cuba boasts one of the lowest rates of extreme poverty in the world—1.5 percent in 2006. But despite this achievement, the island still suffers from food insecurity.

With an average monthly income of $20, even a typical Cuban government employee cannot afford meat daily. Milk, cheese or ice cream are reserved as weekly treats, and an aging population means that Cuba will struggle to meet more specific nutritional requirements in the future.

Yet many NGOs, especially those from Europe, must bypass subsidiaries in the United States and look elsewhere for funding. Major funding partners such as the World Bank, IMF and Inter-American Development Bank are blocked due to American veto powers in these institutions. These restrictions limit capacity-building in the agricultural sector.

In the words of one Cuban teacher, this is all too clear: “People want to leave Cuba just because they are hungry.”

2. Funding for Collective Enterprise

Cubans love to share, and one of the ways the island recovered from the fall of the Soviet Union was through its collective (public-private) business. In fact, the number of small to medium-sized firms has grown to roughly half a million since Raul Castro took office.

Raul has also implemented other changes. Private and hybrid firms can now sell services to each other and to government entities. New credit lines are being issued with unlimited ceilings, and decreases in the value of welfare and food subsidies are motivating Cubans to try entrepreneurship.

For instance, at Bella II Beauty in Havana, one esthetician is now making $42 per month instead of the $14 while under government control. Her business is one such worker cooperative.

“The inspector would come and the products that weren’t from here,” she says, “I had to hide them.”

Under the collective business model, workers can now streamline operations to increase profits, with each having say in their decision-making.

To add to this, the Cuban government is cutting back on expenses, as its banks are unable to provide more than $40 in loans to individual citizens. The Brookings Institution estimates that over 500,000 civil service jobs will be terminated in coming years to halt the bloating of public sector employment.

An improved U.S. aid package to Cuba would, therefore, support economic cooperatives with training, technical expertise, and financial resources to continue their growth.

3. Support for the Housing Sector

Every three days in Havana, at least two buildings collapse on average. This statistic sums up the state of Cuban housing: a cramped, expensive and decaying affair.

Over 85 percent of Cubans own their homes thanks to transfer measures that turned renters into owners during the revolution. But there are 11.2 million residents living in 3.9 million homes. This means that Cubans often live with not only their partners, but also their parents and grandparents.

Government estimates indicate that more than 500,000 additional housing units are required to meet demand, but construction is lagging. In order to reach that goal within eight years, the government would need to build 70,000 units per year, compared to its current yield of 16,000.

This is another opportunity for NGOs to offer properly trained labor and grants, especially since mortgages are illegal in Cuba to prevent real-estate speculation. In the words of prize-winning jurist Rodolfo Fernandez, “Housing is for living in, not for making a living from.”

An improved U.S. aid package to Cuba would preserve these unique advances by finding a middle ground between full-fledged capitalism and the more regulated (think: France) vision held by the island’s citizens.

Alfredo Cumerma

Photo: Pixabay

US and Cuban Relations: A New Future for Cuba
After 54 years of severed diplomatic ties, the United States and Cuba, once bitter Cold War enemies, demonstrated their newfound diplomacy by reopening each other’s embassies this past Monday.

It is the most concrete example of the diplomatic thaw since President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced last December that U.S.-Cuba relations would be restored.

In an interview with MSNBC, President Obama said he believed that Proclamation 3447, the embargo signed by President Kennedy in 1962, has served neither people well and that it was time to go in a new direction.

Although Congress has to pass legislation to formally end the embargo — something that will be very challenging to do — Obama is using his executive power to ease travel and trade restrictions.

For the first time in half a century, the United States is able to transparently see the type of living conditions Cubans have been in for the past 50 years.

There is poverty in Cuba, but it’s not traditional poverty. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the government became Socialist and then reformed to become the Communist Party of Cuba. During this time, all aspects of Cuban society became nationalized. For the past 50 years, Cubans have enjoyed access to a free healthcare system that has produced a very healthy populace.

Today, Cuba ranks 61st in the world for life expectancy. Its citizens live roughly to the same age as their American counterparts. This statistic is even more surprising considering that per capita GDP is almost ten times higher in the United States than in Cuba.

Economists have coined this phenomenon the ‘Cuban Health Paradox.’ Normally, countries with low per capita GDPs also have low life expectancies.

Cubans also have access to free education and the government has tried to make housing and nutrition a priority for its citizens.

Based on government numbers, Cuba ranks 48th in the world for poverty. The island nation is one of the least impoverished countries in the developing world

Although 15 percent of the population still lives in extreme poverty, most of the country is poor. Reports of living conditions are less than ideal. The Cuban peso, which hasn’t been convertible since the revolution, has suffered from inflation. In U.S. dollars, the average Cuban worker earns $17 to $30 a month.

Cuba also scores at the bottom of Freedom House’s annual report on civil and political freedoms. Freedom House describes Cuba as ‘not free.’

Since the Castro family has been in power, Cuba has been relatively isolated. This has led to the country’s lack of overall wealth. The fall of the Soviet Union worsened matters as the country lost the financial support it used to have from Moscow.

The country has persisted; however, this has usually caused Cuba to become more self-reliant, therefore poorer.

Recently, Cuba has tried to reform its economic system to open up investment to other governments and private companies to accelerate development.

The United States re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba presents a great opportunity for this to happen. The United States can expand trade markets to one of its closest neighbors, while the influx of capital will raise living standards in Cuba.

Kevin Meyers

Sources: Procon, Geoba, MSNBC, New York Times, Poverties, Reuters, Rural Poverty Portal
Photo: USA Today

For all its charms, Cuba is not known for being on the cutting edge. Many residents are eagerly awaiting upgrades to the island nation’s information technology as the United States eases its embargo. Having the latest technology in Cuba will bring many benefits to its citizens.

Cuba has a certain retro vibe and Havana is often associated with its many antique automobiles. Brightly colored and bearing the names of Ford, Chevrolet or Plymouth, the creaky American cars are a ubiquitous (if unlikely) symbol of the socialist nation.

The decades-old cars require constant maintenance and spare parts to stay running. They are a source of pride—icons of resourcefulness during tough economic times.

When socialist rule was established, the Cuban government began to tightly control all aspects of the economy. One new regulation was to prevent the sale or purchase of cars that were not in use before 1959.

The U.S. embargo on Cuba worsened economic conditions further. Restrictions on trade hampered growth and isolated the island. The measures were initially adopted following the Cuban Revolution and then made stricter following the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But it is not just automobiles that are caught in a time warp. Cuba also has one of the lowest rates of Internet connectivity in the world, largely due to cost, censorship and sanctions. According to the Brookings Institution, less than five percent of Cubans have access to the Internet.

This has led Cuban youth to find innovative ways of staying connected.

In January, the Associated Press reported at least 9,000 Cubans are connected to a clandestine network known as “SNet.” The network was created by stringing Ethernet cables over rooftops and by connecting personal computers to WiFi antennas. Users connect directly without going through government servers.

They are also trading terabytes of data in the form of the latest movies, TV shows and apps by physically handing around hard drives, according to a report by The Guardian.

As of this week, however, Cubans might have an easier time of things.

The country has announced the opening of 35 new WiFi locations. It is also cutting the cost of access significantly, from four dollars and fifty cents to two dollars an hour. The change is likely due to increasing demand as well as improved relations with the United States.

In an interview with Reuters, American University professor William LeoGrande believed the Cuban government “has decided that broad Internet access is essential to a 21st century economy.”

There is plenty of research to back up that assessment. Last year, Boston Consulting Group found easy Internet access to have a “dramatic” effect on the growth of a national economy. In a similar study by McKinsey and Company, Internet access was found to be a key aspect of a modernized economy.

That’s good news for Cubans, especially those forced to browse in secret.

– Kevin McLaughlin

Sources: Boston Consulting Group, Brookings, CNN, The Independent, McKinsey and Company, Reuters
Photo: Reuters

goals_of_foreign_policyThough the specific goals of U.S. foreign policy have varied with different administrations, the United States’ experience with isolationism in the twentieth century has ushered in a new and more active form of foreign policy. The U.S. Department of State declares that the focus of foreign policy is the promotion of human rights, based upon the content of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To advance the well-being of foreign nations, the Department of State website states that U.S. foreign policy seeks to secure peace, strengthen democracies, fight crime and corruption and “prevent humanitarian crises,” among other goals.

The existence of human rights on a global scale is not only in the best interest of foreign nations but of the United States as well. Successful U.S. foreign policy in defense of human rights often results in the decline of national security threats and the maintenance of the balance of power among nations. U.S. involvement in global affairs also works toward cooperative foreign trade and global economic interaction.

Creating specific U.S. foreign policy is often a balance of interests in which diplomats and leaders must decide which issues require direct and immediate attention at a given moment. Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford, stated that when creating foreign policy it is necessary “to separate the urgent from the important and make sure you’re dealing with the important and don’t let the urgent drive out the important.”

One only needs to read the latest newspaper headlines to find that the U.S. government has recently focused heavily on the urgent threats of Iranian nuclear capabilities and Russian force against Ukraine. Although the most urgent foreign affairs have assumed much diplomatic attention, the Obama Administration has recently chosen to shift some of its focus to U.S. relations with Cuba. Affairs in Cuba are at the moment a less urgent national security issue but an important human rights issue.

Goals of foreign policy with Cuba, as listed on the state department’s website, aim at re-establishing diplomatic relations, empowering the Cuban people by “adjusting” regulations and facilitating more travel to Cuba for U.S. businesses. The potential for future health collaboration may also provide greater opportunities to advance the well being of Cubans.

The Department of State hopes that the increased flow of information and goods – up to $400 in Cuban goods, $100 of which can comprise alcohol and tobacco products – will expose the Cubans to democratic society. However, Cuban President Raul Castro still hopes to partake in dialogue with the U.S. that “acknowledges our profound differences, particularly on issues related to national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy.” Castro plans to maintain a “prosperous and sustainable Socialism,” which could prove a point of contention between the Cuban government and American businesses that settle in the Latin American country.

No policy change in regard to the 1962 embargo with Cuba will occur until Congress officially changes the law, but international progress and cooperation between the U.S. and its offshore neighbor have already returned Cuban and American hostages to their home countries and advanced one of the most important goals of foreign policy, human rights.

– Paulina Menichiello

Sources: The White House, The Guardian, Pew Research Center, The Washington Post 1, The Washington Post 2, CNN, NewsWeek
Photo: The Washington Post