MAKICHUK: Cuban tourism continues to feed a corrupt regime

A typical scene of a classic car in Cuba — an economy that has never been viable.
A typical scene of a classic car in Cuba — an economy that has never been viable.Dave Makichuk photo

First off, let me say, I like Cuba and I love the Cuban people.

I've been five times over the years. Sometimes to Havana and sometimes to the all-inclusives. But I have never been so disappointed, so concerned and so saddened, by the current milieu that Cubans now must endure.

My last trip to Havana was a double-edged sword. While I and a professor buddy did enjoy the trip, both of us came away changed. And not in a good way.

The Cuba I knew is no more.

As I reported in a previous column, inflation and shortages have hit the island hard.

A long-suffering nation is going through a tough time, again and it is not a nice thing to witness.

Most tourists, Canadians tourists, don't realize that almost every penny that is spent at resorts and hotels in Cuba, goes straight to the military, which fuels a corrupt government and repression.

Those hotel workers who are so wonderful and nice, who look after you at the resorts?

According to a CBC investigation, these workers are provided through an employment agency also controlled by GAESA/Gaviota. If a foreign company pays Gaviota $750 a month for the average base-salary worker, the worker would typically receive less than 10% of that amount in salary. The rest goes to the Cuban military.

While it is noble that Canadians generally come with extra things in their suitcase to give to Cuban hotel workers, including hefty tips, it is quite regrettable that they are reinforcing a virtual captive workforce.

The beaches of Cuba hold a strong allure to Canadian visitors.
The beaches of Cuba hold a strong allure to Canadian visitors.Dave Makichuk photo

No surprise that tourism jobs are highly sought after.

"Cubans leave their jobs as engineers, as medical professionals, as teachers, to work in those hotels," one source told CBC News, "because that's where the salaries are better, the working conditions are better and you have access to tips from international tourists."

Troubled by what is going on in Cuba, I reached out to Dr. Orlando Gutierrez-Boronat, a world renowned author, analyst and Cuban activist. He co-founded the Cuban Democratic Directorate in 1990 seeking human rights and democratic change in Cuba.

Reached at his Miami office, I asked Dr. Gutiérrez-Boronat why Cuba is in such a mess.

"First of all, the regime has never been viable economically. From the very beginning, their reorganization of Cuban agriculture — it had happened in many other communist countries — they destroyed Cuba's ability to feed itself," he said.

"That was alleviated by Soviet subsidies in the '70s, and then after that by Venezuelan subsidies. But now there's no sugar daddy."

"The Europeans are sending money to subsidize that regime, but it still doesn't cover all their needs. And the regime's economic and political policies are so draconian, that they really destabilized the economy, they've generated a massive exodus and there's deep discontent."

"People want freedom. People want a normal economy where their currency has some value to it. And they know that the economic chaos is the result of this regime's repression and economic policies."

The are even shortages of Cuban cigars in high-end hotels.
The are even shortages of Cuban cigars in high-end hotels.Dave Makichuk photo

I pointed out that there are strange shortages — even five star-hotels have no cigars or coffee, which suggests, even if you have the money, things are not available.

"Well, there's always been hunger and need in Cuba, always. I mean, that's why so many of us have fled, because of the lack of freedoms and the constant scarcity. It's a deeply corrupt regime," he said.

"The US embargo does not cover agriculture. Cuba eats because it imports 100% of what it eats mainly from the US and Canada. So those shortages are not the result of US sanctions."

"They're the result, number one, of deeply failed economic policies which have not been successful."

"Instead of allowing for a free market, free demand, the ebb and flow of economic relations between citizens, what they do is they rigidly control the state and the economy from above and that generates all this distortion and chaos."

Hotel workers only get a fraction of their contracted salaries in Cuba.
Hotel workers only get a fraction of their contracted salaries in Cuba.Dave Makichuk photo

Recent street protests, which occurred in mid-March, are evidence the only way the regime can be removed is by a popular, nonviolent, grassroots movement for change, he said.

They also occurred in the historically significant triangle of Manzanillo, Santiago de Cuba, Bayamo and Holquin, where four million people reside.

"Since July 11th, 2021, the protests have been continuous," he adds. "These that happened in eastern Cuba that you mentioned, and it spread through some other provinces, are just the most recent example."

"Cubans want change, and they're going to achieve it through protesting in the streets and through a nonviolent movement for returning the country to freedom and democracy."

Who exactly is benefitting the most from tourism?

"It's a small group of generals, mostly in the Ministry of the Interior and the upper echelon of the armed forces that controls everything and with the Castro family," he said.

"And remember, right after July 11th (the demonstrations in 2021), in the ensuing year, 28 Cuban generals died mysteriously."

A development that indicates, perhaps not everyone was in line with the new regime's agenda. In fact, a purge.

Will things ever change and would it help to extend an olive branch to this draconian government?

"I think that what has to happen is that Europe and the US tell this regime, 'Listen, unless change happens' — and it can't be a little bit of change, it has to be real change," he said.

"Unless the regime gets on the track to free all political prisoners, legalize civil society, hold multi-party elections, there won't be real change in Cuba. And I think the US, Canada and Europe need to stand together and firm on that."

What does the future hold? And will it get worse, not better?

"I think there's going to be more and more resistance, more and more protests, he said.

"Cubans want to be free. It's very important. The (triangle) region of Cuba where the most recent protests took place, that's a very important part of Cuba. Not only is over half the Cuban population there, historically, that's where Cuban nationality was born."

"That's where wars of independence began. That's where the revolt against Batista took place. So in the collective subconscious of Cubans, when that area of Cuba rises, it's time for change. It's time for freedom."

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