With the death of longtime dictator Fidel Castro, the relationship between the United States and Cuba is now at the forefront of media attention. As the United States continues the process of restoring economic and political relations with Cuba, it is important to recognize that doing so would create a large stream of new revenue to a government that remains essentially a totalitarian state with an atrocious human rights record. The United States should strongly consider the morality of any change in policy that would further enrich the despotic Cuban government.
As the son of a Cuban exile, my family experienced life under the Castro regime. Like other communist nations, Cuba had no freedom of expression, no political freedom, no property rights, and was ruled by a murderous dictator. After the fall of the Soviet Union, nations that were once communist undertook significant reforms that greatly increased individual freedom. Cuba, however, did not implement such reforms. While the Castro brothers have somewhat relaxed their grip over the people in recent years, Cuba still remains one of the least free states in the world, second only to North Korea.
Nearly my entire family managed to immigrate to the United States, but some, including my great aunt, did not. Her experiences highlight the level of abuse from the government and the stark lack of freedom that the Cuban people experience to this day.
During her time here, she told us many stories of life in Cuba. One in particular reveals the total lack of rights in this oppressive police state. In Cuba there are often food shortages. One day, while especially hungry, my great aunt and her roommate decided to do the unthinkable: Eat some mangoes from the tree in her yard. All property in Cuba is state owned, including fruit trees. After the deed was done, they feared the smell of the mango skins in the trash would alert the neighborhood watchman, whose job (among other things) included inspecting trashcans for “stolen” fruit. To solve this problem my great aunt was forced to bury the mango skins.
Such stories are not rare occurrences in a nation where civil rights and liberties are virtually non-existent. However, many of our nation’s top policymakers are advocating for open trade with Cuba. This raises the question, should the United States allow capital to flow into a nation and benefit a government that continues to brutally restrict the basic rights and freedoms of its people?
Proponents of more open relations argue that the increased trade will benefit the average Cuban. Under normal economic circumstances this would be true. Unfortunately, however, there is nothing normal about Cuba’s economic structure. Cuba operates under a dual currency system, with one currency (CUC) at a fixed 1:1 ratio with the U.S. dollar. The CUC was instituted in 1993 to fill Cuba’s quickly dwindling foreign currency reserves. The CUC is used by tourists and visitors to the island. The second currency, CUP, is used by the general population, and currently holds a 26.5:1 ratio with the CUC. Using the dual currency scheme, the Cuban government is able to “tax” the income of workers at about 97 percent. For example, if a tourist spends $100 at a state-owned resort, the government transfers the dollars into 100 CUCs. It then pays the Cuban employee 100 CUPs (worth less than $4) and keeps the difference, amounting to about 97 percent of the value. Under this policy, the overwhelming majority of foreign cash that would flow into Cuba from increased relations with the United States would be seized by the same government that oppressed my family and millions of other Cubans.
The death of Fidel Castro gives a sliver of hope that perhaps there will soon be an end to totalitarian rule in Cuba. Raul Castro, however, still rules the island with a strong grip. Until there is meaningful reform, the United States should carefully consider any policy changes that one-sidedly benefit the despotic Cuban government.