Practically all the issues affecting Latin American can be directly or indirectly traced back to the Castro dictatorship. Yet Joe Biden refuses to even mention the communist regime.
Why Won’t Joe Biden Take On Cuba?
The president talks of troubles in the region but never mentions the heart of darkness.
During his press conference last week President Biden was asked to comment on U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere. He riffed on Central America, said he’d spent “a lot of time talking about” Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, and incoherently referenced Chile and Argentina. He went on to express concern about the shrinking number of democracies in the world.
Yet strangely the president never mentioned the region’s heart of darkness, the 63-year-old military dictatorship in Havana.
Cuba’s intelligence and security apparatuses direct the repression in Venezuela and Nicaragua and support the one-party state in Bolivia. Cuba is actively trying to undermine democratic institutions in Colombia, Peru and Chile. At home it uses torture, imprisonment and exile to put down dissent.
Liberty in the region can’t be secured without taking on totalitarian Havana. Mr. Biden’s failure to give priority to the task is alarming. It’s why, despite the historic July 11 uprising, the hope for a Cuba libre that welled up last summer is fading.
Socialism preaches the common good but in real life it’s hard to find a more money-grubbing lot than ruling socialists. See Cuba.
The island economy is in shambles and the outlook is dire. Yet the most powerful (and hated) man in the country—the fair-skinned, blue-eyed Gen. Luis Alberto López Calleja—has responded to the humanitarian crisis by circling the wagons to protect his own billion-dollar empire.
At issue is the 70% fall in dollar remittances from the U.S. over the past two years. Mr. López Calleja is the former son-in-law of Raúl Castro and owner of the Cuban military conglomerate GAESA. He wants the world to believe that cratering remittances are the fault of U.S. sanctions. In fact, full dollar remittances could restart tomorrow if he would allow Cubans to receive them.
The island has been heavily dependent on remittances for more than two decades. For most of that time Cubans could change greenbacks into “convertible” pesos, which had the same buying power in government stores as the dollar. A floating—and worthless—peso was still used to pay workers. But the CUC, as the dollar-equivalent currency was known, allowed Cubans who could get it to improve their living standards.
Eventually the CUC became a problem for the regime because it printed too many of them. They began to trade in the black market at their devalued price. Separately, in 2013, when Cuba loosened travel restrictions outside the island, entrepreneurs began lugging goods from abroad to sell at home. As informal markets flourished, the government was losing control and, more important, missing out on the capture of hard-currency revenues for itself.
In 2019, the military tried to put a stop to this by cracking down on travelers returning to the island with merchandise. It also mandated the use of government-issued debit cards in government stores, where steep markups are routine. The military, through its financial institutions, continued to seize remittance dollars and issue overvalued pesos to the intended recipients. The Miami-based Havana Consulting Group estimates that remittances to Cuba from the U.S. in 2019 totaled $3.7 billion.
In October 2020 the Trump administration began prohibiting the flow of remittance dollars through Fincimex, a shadowy company owned by the Cuban military, or other military-owned companies. Western Union, the most popular money business serving the island, responded by closing Cuba operations. On Jan. 1, 2021, the Trump administration added the military’s Banco Financiero Internacional to its restricted list.
This has deprived Mr. López Calleja of hard currency when credit from China, Russia and Venezuela has been reduced and tourism is in the tank. Last year the regime retired the CUC and, in a last-ditch effort to scare up real money hidden in mattresses, imposed a deadline for exchanging dollars. It now issues only floating pesos and in December acknowledged that official 2021 inflation would reach 70%. In October it said the black-market peso exchange rate implied a surge in the price level of 6,900%.
For Mr. López Calleja this homemade mess offers another way to control dissent. Scarce food goes to the compliant while “counterrevolutionaries”—including teenagers—are beaten up, locked up, denied employment and medical care, and otherwise made to suffer extreme privation. Meantime, an army of propagandists and useful idiots in universities and media around the world continue to insist that the hardship is caused by U.S. sanctions.
The Biden administration could counteract the regime’s disinformation by launching a high-profile campaign in favor of a transparent pathway for Cubans to receive dollar remittances directly like other nations do.
Mr. López Calleja would refuse, of course, because as one Cuban who knows the general puts it, “Luis Alberto doesn’t like to share.” But that’s all the more reason to make it an issue.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.