Cuba and the outside world: Rekindling old friendships
Cuba is once again resorting to geopolitics to support a failing economy
CARLITO, a wiry man with greying hair, sits under a palm tree in Mariel, a town on a bay 40km (25 miles) west of Havana, sipping rum and watching a container ship edge out towards the Caribbean. He recalls seeing a flotilla of smaller boats leaving from this same spot in 1980, carrying thousands of opponents of the Castro regime to Florida in the “Mariel boatlift”.
Those were politically charged times. Government trucks would come to his school to deliver eggs for him and his friends to throw at the people fleeing. About a decade and a half later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 plunged Cuba’s economy into crisis, sources of protein were so scarce that Carlito recalled those wasted eggs with bitter regret. Some “Marielitos”, as those who fled are known, returned recently and Carlito was stunned at how prosperous they had become. “We used to call them traidores (traitors),” he chuckles. “Now we call them traedolares (bring dollars).”
Across the bay from where Carlito sits is a $900m container port, which was built with Brazilian money and inaugurated in January. There are plans to develop a special economic zone alongside it, modelled on the thriving export hubs, such as Shenzhen, that China developed from 1980 onwards. The port is part of a vision for Cuba that relies less on Cuban-American gusanos (worms) sending remittances to prop up the local economy, and more on an inflow of foreign investors.
But Carlito is keeping his excitement in check. Construction workers building the container terminal were paid a mere 250 pesos ($10) a month, he says, so the ramshackle town has yet to benefit from the development. None of the 23 firms who have sought licences to operate in the special economic zone has yet been granted one. Even Joaquín Infante, the 88-year-old vice-president of the slow-moving National Association of Cuban Economists and Accountants, urges speedier authorisation of investment. “We need to be more flexible and take more risks,” he says.
Despite reforms that have brought some big changes to Cuba in the form of private restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and new co-operatives, the economy has virtually ground to a halt. In the first half of the year GDP grew by just 0.6%, leading the government to reduce its estimate for full-year growth to 1.4%. That is lower than the 2.7% annual average figure since Raúl Castro (pictured on the right, with Vladimir Putin) became president in 2008.
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