Amid focus of Cuba's ties to China and Russia, residents bemoan hunger, scarcity

When Ariel Maceo Tellez walks the streets of Jaimanitas, west of Havana, Cuba, he says it feels like they are full of "ghosts" — most of his friends are gone, having fled the island to escape the economic hardships and repression.

“Among the Cuban population, everyone who can is emigrating. In the last year, 300,000 people have left, fleeing misery and hunger. Many of my friends gather some boards and jump into the sea because they prefer to fight the sharks than spend another day in this hell,” Tellez, a 36-year-old Cuban poet, said in a telephone interview with Noticias Telemundo.

According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol figures, 224,607 Cubans, more than 2% of the 11 million inhabitants on the island, migrated to the United States in 2022.

The communist country made world news again recently, following reports it had signed a multimillion-dollar deal with China to install a large spy center on its territory just 90 miles from Florida, a claim that both China and Cuba have denied.

Though the U.S. initially also denied the claims, a Biden administration official later said that China had been spying on Cuba for years and on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that the Trump administration had not done enough to counter China's efforts after learning about the base in 2019. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said on video that Blinken's allegations were "totally false" and that the U.S.'s aim is to continue "the economic blockade against Cuba."

Andrea Rodríguez, a mother of two children aged 6 and 7, said she doesn't lose sleep over Chinese espionage and geopolitical concerns.

“What doesn’t let me sleep is when my children wake up hungry,” and I don’t even have a sweet potato to give them. That breaks my soul,” she said, with desperation in her voice.

The island is being hit by one of the hardest crises in recent decades due to its slow-growing state-controlled economy, which has not recovered from the blow of the Covid-19 pandemic, a bumpy monetary reordering and the tightening of U.S. sanctions.

According to some analysts, Cuba's economic crisis may explain some of the government's recent moves, including forging greater ties with Russia, courting the Cuban diaspora and foreign investors, and promoting small and medium-sized businesses.

Elías Amor, a Cuban economist and researcher based in Spain, told Noticias Telemundo that in 2021 and 2022, inflation on the island grew by more than 100%. In addition, Amor said, "tourism is still 40% below the records of 2019, so it does not generate enough foreign currency and that has generated this nightmare."

In a recent speech to Cuba's Congress, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Economy and Planning Alejandro Gil addressed the downturn in tourism. By May 3, he said, Cuba saw 1 million visitors, which is 119% more than the same time period the year before — but 51% less than in May 2019.

The constant rise in the prices of food staples is one of the biggest problems facing the Cuban population. The creation of stores that use Freely Convertible Currency, known as MLC in Spanish, has accentuated the inequalities between those who receive money from their relatives abroad – and can use the virtual currency on reloadable cards – and those who can't.

Many basics are found in stores that use this virtual currency instead of Cuban pesos, which is the currency used by the government to pay salaries.

To purchase chicken, according to Rodriguez, "you have to give more than half of your salary. You can’t buy what you need and it’s very desperate,” she said.

The shortage of goods and the increase in costs, as well as the black market and the resale of basic goods, are all impacting the purchasing power of Cubans, which has touched an historic low.

“You can’t find things, and when you find them they are very expensive," Tellez said. "Before, in Havana, a pound of lemons cost 5 or 10 Cuban pesos. Now you find it at 200, nobody can bear those prices.”

“After everything the leaders told us, after all the sacrifice and misery, this is the hunger revolution,” Tellez said.

The U.N. calculates 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, an increase in poverty and inequality and a massive exodus, as a result of the application of mistaken budgetary and exchange policies and the development of an incipient oligarchic capitalism,” said Rafael Rojas, historian and Cuban academic at the College of Mexico.

Greater ties with Russia

The alliance between Moscow and Havana seemingly saw a new impetus last May, after both countries endorsed their desire to strengthen the Russia's financial and business presence on the island with measures such as exemption from tariffs, land concessions for 30 years and deeper ties between their banking systems.

Rojas has reservations about the reforms to attract Russian investment, especially in strategic areas such as agriculture and banking.

"If these reforms are implemented, it will be necessary to assess the concrete results because in all this Russian movement there’s a lot of simulation, propaganda and pressure on the United States and Europe so that they make their ties with the island more flexible,” Rojas said.

Similarly, Amor sees the plans for economic ventures between Russia and Cuba as a “great simulation.” He said that in the past these types of 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. He doesn't think the Russians will be directly involved in sugar production or taking over small or medium-size businesses.

"The problems of the Cuban economy are not going to be solved by either the Americans or the Russians, the Cubans have to solve them,” Amor said.

In 2021, Cuba announced new laws to regulate micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises (Mipymes), highlighting on Twitter the “new opportunity for greater participation of Cubans residing abroad in socio-economic development projects in Cuba.”

Despite the fact that 7,900 of these companies have been approved in the year and a half that they have been authorized, Gil stressed that the island’s socialist model is based on state companies and industries, and noted that 285 of them registered losses.

But Tellez warns that in reality Mipymes “are for a sector that is devoted to the regime and they are the ones obtaining those profits, not the Cuban people. These companies are not going to solve the problem of Cuba because there are only about 8,000. Before 1959, there were 62,000 local businesses and you can’t compete against that.”

As he wanders the empty streets of Jaimanitas and sees the waters that have taken away many of his friends, Tellez says it is inevitable to remember past crises like “El Maleconazo,” when communist authorities seemed to be reeling from social discontent and protests of 1994. “Our history is summarized in crises and difficulties, not in achievements,” he said.

An earlier version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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