It’s amazing how President George W. Bush and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro can work in tandem toward a common end: the decimation of the Cuban middle class. Recent changes in our embargo implemented by Bush, combined with the reactions of a Cuban dictatorship on the brink of collapse, have resulted in disaster for the losers of this political game — the 11 million people of Cuba.
Our embargo was strengthened in July 2004. In the new set of restrictions, Bush limited travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans, who can now visit only immediate family members and only once every three years. Furthermore, in an attempt to keep U.S. currency out of the Cuban economy, Bush tightened the rules on remittances, such that Cuban Americans can now send money only to immediate family members, defined as parents, children and siblings. Before, aunts, uncles and grandchildren received money. No longer.
In order to understand the importance of these changes, we must recognize the role of remittances for many Cuban families. For so many across the island, the $100 received every month from family in the United States meant the difference between survival and incredible hardship.
Bush’s justification for the new restrictions on remittances is that Cubans spend their money in state stores and the money then finds its way back to Fidel Castro. Castro uses the funds to buy important imports needed to keep the state running and prevent collapse. Thus, the remittances fuel the repressive political machine, says Bush. In response to Bush’s policy, Castro raised prices in all the stores, citing as the cause America’s economic war against Cuba.
The result of these changes was that Cubans had less money sent from family and faced higher prices in state stores. In the period of one month of the summer, Bush and Castro delivered a swift one-two punch to the Cuban people.
In fairness to our president, his policy in Cuba seems to be working. Cuba is in a dire economic situation and denying remittances has been an effective strategy. After raising prices in stores this summer, the Cuban government has again showed a sign of desperation to collect foreign currency. On Monday, Oct. 25, Fidel Castro announced that U.S. currency would no longer be accepted in stores in Cuba. Cubans were given until Nov. 15 to exchange all their dollars for convertible pesos. After the Nov. 15 deadline, Cubans can still exchange their dollars for convertible pesos, but they have to pay a 10 percent surcharge. This regulation provided Cubans with incentive to change their currency immediately and give the government a much-needed windfall of foreign exchange. On Nov. 5, The Miami Herald cited analysts who estimated that Cuban citizens would change several hundred million dollars for convertible pesos by Nov. 15.
The new policy reflects the desperation of Cuba’s communist government. Strapped for the foreign currency needed to buy imports, Castro has tapped the reserves of his citizens, who had hidden stashes of dollars in their houses. By convincing citizens to exchange these dollars, Castro’s government buys some more time before bankruptcy and collapse. The citizens exchange life savings of dollars for convertible pesos, little pieces of paper that are likely to become worthless when the government finally falls. Castro and his communist party cannot conceive of any reality after communism in Cuba; they have consequently not thought of the repercussions of their actions for the broken Cuban people after the convertible peso becomes worthless.
While 11 million Cubans lose everything, there is one potential group of winners in this game of political squeeze. Some elite Cuban Americans who live in Miami stand to benefit. I’m not talking about the Cuban Americans sending money to family back home; I’m not talking about the Cuban Americans who escaped to the United States in the last 25 years. I’m talking about the old elite. They came to Miami shortly after Castro rose to power. Their hatred for Fidel Castro is consuming. They feel cheated and they plan to reclaim the country that was robbed in 1959. Many of these exiles have aspirations of acquiring political and economic power in Cuba. Like Castro and his blindness to outcomes that exclude the communist party, this group of Miami Cubans does not see that it is crushing the Cuban people en route to getting Castro. A more cynical interpretation is that the Miami-Cuban elite knows it will be easier to reclaim political and economic power if all middle-class Cubans have been completely decimated economically.
Regardless of the motivations of the powerful exile community that influences Bush’s policy (we can only speculate), the reality is clear: The U.S. squeezes the people to get to Castro. Castro squeezes the people back to stay in power. They’ll continue until the very last drop; they’ll continue until there’s nothing left to squeeze.
Sam Taylor is a senior in Saybrook College.