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As Cuba's economy craters and private businesses grow, here's what's holding up change

Nora Gámez Torres, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

When Cuba’s prime minister recently visited a staunch ally abroad, he got an unexpected scolding in front of media cameras.

Belarus leader Aleksandr Lukashenko, breaking with protocol that holds that sensitive topics among friends are best discussed behind closed doors, complained to Prime Minister Manuel Marrero that Cuba has been too slow in solving its decades-long economic woes.

Lukashenko’s message to Cuba: It’s time to act.

“There is no movement,” Lukashenko told Marrero. “We have the warmest relations. At the political level, we have absolutely no differences. But you, as a practical person who heads the government, understand perfectly well that the basis of all this, the foundation, is the economy.”

Cuba is going through the worst crisis it has experienced in decades, with widespread shortages of food and medicines, rolling blackouts and a sky-high 400% annual inflation rate. The calls on the communist leadership to open up the economy to the market are getting loud, even from close political allies.

In 2021, the island’s Communist government began allowing Cubans to own small and medium enterprises for the first time in decades. Even with the government’s severe restrictions — such as limiting how many people they can hire or how much money they can take out of bank accounts — the new businesses have been unexpectedly successful, employing more than a million people and surpassing the government as significant importers of food and other essential goods.

 

But deep divisions at the top of the regime regarding how much freedom to give the new private sector, compounded by a leadership vacuum, are creating paralysis and keeping the country from adopting broader market reforms.

Cuba remains a closed communist society, where discussions at the top are closely guarded from public view. The following account was pieced together from interviews with about a dozen participants or close observers of the Cuban government’s moves, including entrepreneurs in Cuba, Cuban Americans who do business on the island, and experts closely watching Havana’s limited steps to allow a private sector.

The tensions at the highest levels of the government over the island’s future are in large part a consequence of the 2016 death of Fidel Castro: Where before one man was indisputably in charge of all important decisions, now competing groups share power and little of consequence happens if they are not all in agreement.

Aged revolutionaries block change

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