Early this month, a senior Cuban official raised the possibility of loosening travel restrictions, potentially making it far easier for Cuban citizens to travel abroad as tourists. So far, little is known about the details of the policy Havana has in mind. But the flurry of interest stirred by this news reminds us that change in Cuba can potentially have far-reaching strategic and political implications, for its own people as well as for the regions that surround it.
There is a great deal that can be done in advance to prepare for the day when the post-Castro transition begins. The Cuba Transition Project (CTP) at the University of Miami, created in 2001 with the support of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has become a major authority on Cuban affairs. The project has released major studies on transition by both academics and experts, as well as a variety of other reports on topics such as political parties, labor unions, a free press, and economic reform. (The works cited in this article have all been produced under CTP auspices.)
In the early 1990s, many people expected the communist regime in Cuba to collapse. Those of us who followed the situation closely knew better, and subsequent events have borne out our caution. The post-Castro transition will indeed come one day, but when it does, it promises to be a long and complicated process.
The challenges are many. First, there will be the tremendous task of economic reconstruction. For nearly four decades, Cuba's extreme dependence on the Soviet bloc for trade, and the distorting effects of huge subsidies from Moscow, created an artificial economy. Most of Cuba's exports are in decline, and poverty is correspondingly growing. The internal market is weak, as domestic consumption is controlled by a strict and severe rationing system. Many transactions take place in the illegal black market, which operates in American dollars and with merchandise stolen from state enterprises or received from abroad. The Cuban peso has depreciated and its purchasing power has waned considerably. Huge and persistent government deficits, and the absence of virtually any stabilizing fiscal and monetary policies, have accelerated the downward spiraling of the economy. (Socio-Economic Reconstruction: Suggestions and Recommendations for Post-Castro Cuba, Antonio Jorge, and Institutions to Accompany the Market in Cuba, Ernesto Hernandez-Cata).
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Moreover, sugar production, Cuba's mainstay export, has dropped to Great Depression levels. With low prices, a decline in sugar consumption worldwide, an increase in the number of competitive sugar producers, and widespread use of artificial sweeteners, sugar is a losing commodity with dire prospects for the future. Thus tourism, nickel exports, and even exile remittances have replaced sugar as the mainstay of the economy. Oil exploration in Cuba's northwestern waters seems promising, but profits must be shared with foreign partners, and costs are extremely high.
In addition to these vexing economic realities, there will be also a maze of legal problems, particularly concerning foreign investment and the status of assets acquired during the Castro era. Obviously, Cuban nationals, Cuban-Americans, and foreigners whose properties were confiscated during the early years of the revolution will want to reclaim them or will ask for fair compensation. (Property Rights in the Post-Castro Cuban Constitution, Oscar M. Garibaldi and John D. Kirby; Alternative Recommendations for Dealing with Confiscated Properties in Post-Castro Cuba, Mátias F. Traviesco-Diáz.) The U.S. and other countries whose citizens' assets were seized without compensation are likely to support such demands. Cubans living abroad await the opportunity to exercise their legal claims before Cuban courts. The Eastern European and Nicaraguan examples vividly illustrate the complexities, delays, and uncertainties accompanying the reclamation process. (What Can Countries Embarking on Post-Socialist Transformation Learn from the Experiences So Far?, János Kornai).