Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Yes, Cuba is going to change. No, it’s not going to be pretty

REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini
U.S. and Cuban flags hang on the terrace of a restaurant in downtown Havana.

Picture this: It’s the year 2026, a decade after President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba. A weakened, corrupt Cuban government is struggling with economic reforms and facing protests over efforts to reduce education and health benefits. Its political leaders are still enmeshed in settling decades-old scores.

Cuba almost certainly is going to change. Its leaders know it. Its people are eager for change, and despite political opposition in the U.S., the logic of reengagement ultimately will prove too strong. The question is, how much? The experience of other countries shows that the transition from communism is rarely smooth. Some get stuck halfway through the process.

This is not an argument against Obama’s Cuba policy, or his visit next week, which will be both an acknowledgement and a driver of the change that’s under way. The policy Washington pursued over more than half a century didn’t work. And the U.S. maintains relations with many countries despite serious disagreements.

Perhaps Cuba will be an exception. Perhaps its proximity to the United States, and the eagerness of Cuban-Americans will make all the difference. But a decrepit state-run economy is rarely dismantled without a lot of dislocation, corruption and unhappiness. And Cuba can’t expect a revolutionary leader like Vaclav Havel to appear out of thin air.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

Cubans have high hopes that closer ties with the United States will give a jolt to the economy. It’s true that Cuban-Americans – and U.S. business in general – are eager to get a toe-hold on the island. Cuba has a generally well-educated population. Underemployment is a huge problem.

A rare public opinion survey conducted last summer for Univision indicates that even while they expect economic changes, a lot of Cubans still would prefer to be elsewhere — particularly young people. According to the Washington Post, 55 percent of those surveyed (and two-thirds of the people under 35) said they’d like to leave Cuba. Granted, saying you’d leave is one thing; actually doing it is quite another. But still, that’s an awful lot of people.

And here is another is another troubling demographic trend: The Brookings Institution reported that the ratio of people not in the workforce (under 15 or over 60 years old) to the working population will increase over the next 15 years – the exact opposite of the trend in most other developing countries.

So, if there are jobs to be done, it’s not clear who’s going to do them.

And if Cuba were to decide on a massive privatization campaign, who is in the best position to benefit? The experience of Russia and other countries shows that the political elites – and their friends – know better than anyone else where all the levers are located. Perhaps they make the transition as the new ownership class. Or as agents for foreign buyers. Either way offers an opportunity to line their pockets.

Most influential people in this kind of system are pragmatists — not ideologues. You manage to stay on top by figuring out which way the wind is blowing, and positioning yourself to take advantage of it.

The same is true of the political system. Politically, communist — and post-communist — parties often prove to be more resilient than you’d expect.

Cuba’s communists are unlikely to simply roll over and play dead. As a matter of fact, they’ve been arresting more rather than fewer opposition figures.

They also are unlikely to maintain as strong of a grip on the island as they’ve had in the past. One worrying implication, suggested in this Guardian article, is that Mexico’s drug gangs will be able to exploit a convenient new route to their most lucrative market: The United States.

Elsewhere, Communist authorities so repressed the opposition for so long that any alternative had to be built from scratch. A Havel or Walesa has been rare. Disorganization and infighting haven’t been. So you have an opportunity to portray yourself as a competent – albeit chastened – manager who knows how to get things done.

As the transition starts to bite, you also can cast yourself as an economic populist who wants to protect things that people actually liked about the old system. The Univision survey made clear that people are actually quite happy with the education and health care systems. Regardless of who ultimately runs Cuba, it’s reasonable to think those programs will prove to be too expensive, and will have to be curtailed.

Even if the Communists lose power, the opposition might well find itself with a conundrum similar to that facing opposition figures who just took power in Venezuela: Social programs instituted by Hugo Chavez, as bad as they have been for the state budget, are far too popular to just whack.

Then, as fed up as Cubans are with the Brothers Castro, you’d probably ask whether they really want their country to become a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States.

Finally, there is the question of justice.

If the communists or their successors manage to stay in power, they’ll be tempted to do whatever they can to stay there — partially because the alternative simply is too dangerous.

An opposition movement will, quite reasonably, want to investigate who exactly was responsible for decades of repression. And they will want to show there is a price to be paid.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Charles Thompson on 03/18/2016 - 10:03 am.

    It may be ugly but one thing seems certain and that is a flood of outside money inundating Cuba with results no one can predict.

  2. Submitted by Jim Million on 03/18/2016 - 10:46 am.

    Mark, I must (unusually) challenge your mood.

    The U.S. could very quickly turn most everything around to local benefit for Cuba (and others) while strengthening the few remaining weaker links in our bond. If we can maintain relationship with Venezuela, however volatile sometimes, we can succeed anywhere in the region.

    Let’s not prejudge barriers, but quietly pursue advantages. No need to be pessimistic here.
    If anything, the present Florida-Cuba cross-cultural connections indicate optimism.

    The Russian Navy’s not returning. If they do, we can quickly remove them.
    This is “our” region, so to speak, no longer Spanish, Soviet, or effectively Communist. I see little need for self-imposed diplomatic and resource restrictions. Let’s get on with it before some more bit of chaos comes to us elsewhere. We need not tread cautiously at all, simply with positive planning.

    Getting tired of the Washington negative predispositions that have stamped most files with “Caution Here,” it seems. How about “Wisdom Here”?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/18/2016 - 03:56 pm.


      US policy towards Cuba conducted with wisdom? Now, there’s a departure! Such a thing has not happened since . . .hmmm. I’ll have to scour Wikipedia for the answer to that one.

      I agree with your overall point. There will be some disruption of life in Cuba, but there are a number of reasons why I think the pain will be minimal. There are profound historical and cultural differences between Cuba and Eastern Europe, for one thing. Cuba’s connection with the US is stronger than it may seem at first glance. Also, the underground economy in Cuba seems to be composed largely of transactions that would be legal, if not encouraged, elsewhere. It isn’t bootlegged DVDs and drugs as much as it is groceries and car parts.

      Cuba will also benefit from the fact that one of the most boneheaded policies pursued by the Castros–turning a productive agricultural sector into a sugar-producing monoculture–can be reversed relatively easy. Yes, there will be pain, but I don’t think it will be very deep or long-lasting.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/19/2016 - 02:03 am.


        Meyer Lansky’s organization retired and became “strictly legit.”

        We’ve always been receptive of Cuba’s people and concerned for those who remain there. The “repatriation” of Cuba (if you will indulge me) seems pretty straightforward, as developed. Nobody worries about the Castros since Moscow has been muted.

        Perhaps the truth lies in the likelihood Meyer’s legacy fund does still control the action/in-action.

        Bust the drug cartels and very much improves very many places.

        [citation: “jimmypedia”]

  3. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/18/2016 - 10:58 am.

    A wonderful, thoughtful column. Keep ‘ em coming.

    Your reference to corruption in Russia after state loosening of its iron grip is interesting, but the example of China also comes to the foreground.

    Official corruption in China has been identified as one of the state’s top problems by its leadership, or at least SOME of its leadership. Let’s face it: this is one of the fruits of a capitalist, or even semi-capitalist economy. Not that there was zero corruption before China’s modernization of its economy.

    I recall that some friends who were visiting scholars from Shanghai said that a nephew of Deng Xaopeng (sp?) had to be cut in as a broker on ANY real estate deal in Shanghai, otherwise there was no deal. Dynamics like this seem highly likely in Cuba, human nature being as it is.

    Cubans are far happier with their education and health care systems than we here in the U.S. because in significant ways, those systems perform better than ours in terms of serving the needs of the people, in spite of far fewer resources than we enjoy here. I hope they don’t expect that the quality of these systems have to nosedive because of an invasion of capitalists!!

    There are examples of capitalist economies where the education and health care systems function to produce high quality and high satisfaction – our neighbors to the north and the Scandinavian countries come to mind. So there are alternative models.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/18/2016 - 11:27 am.


      The Cuban healthcare system is entirely dependent on a repressive government that pays doctors $20/month. When Cuba becomes free and doctors are able to earn what they are worth – which even in Canada is hundreds of times more than they get now – the system will disappear. We can hope they transition to a system more like Canada’s than ours, but what they have now has no place in Cuba’s future.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 03/18/2016 - 12:14 pm.


        we all better get on with that…before something comes along to excuse and delay. This cannot be at all a daunting dilemma. It’s pretty elementary, as world issues go.

        We simply need to get on with this. I do hope Mr. Obama’s visit today includes some specific proposed actions and support.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/18/2016 - 04:11 pm.

        First, you could say likewise that no one in Cuba

        …is paid what they are worth, when that avg salary figured is weighed on OUR scale for comparison, which is quite misleading.

        But that would miss a few important matters. One of these is the cost of living in Cuba, and although it’s hard to find good, reliable numbers, those costs are far, far below anything we can imagine here. The govt heavily subsidizes important costs, and offers certain of these at no cost.

        Second, the average salary paid by the govt is apparently around $30 a month across all kinds of work. The number you quote for doctors is no longer correct, as it was raised to around $65 just recently. So in fact the average doctor’s salary in country is significantly above the avg govt worker’s pay. For the tens of thousands of Cuban doctors working outside Cuba in its aid programs, the pay is quite a bit higher, but the majority of that income goes back to the Cuban govt. Some of those doctors are angry they don’t get it all.

        I certainly agree with you that there outrages in the Cuban system, but I have a hard time seeing this in a low rate of pay for doctors WHEN COMPARED with OUR system where our physicians can become quite well off, relative to other workers.

        Is it an outrageous injustice that Cuban doctors make only twice what the average govt worker makes?? I can’t get very worked up about this one, especially when they got the entirety of their education for free.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 03/19/2016 - 10:46 am.


          My point wasn’t about outrage – it was about the simple realities of the Cuban healthcare system. Whether its $20 or $65 per month, paying doctors those kind of wages is only possible in a repressive dictatorship. Once Cuba opens up, that will no longer be possible and the system will disappear. There is no lesson to be learned from Cuba’s healthcare system that has any application to a free society.

Leave a Reply