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Cuba's president calls his economic lifeline tour a triumph, experts say otherwise

Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel (left) in Beijing last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping
Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel (left) in Beijing last week with Chinese President Xi Jinping

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel is insisting he's persuaded allies like China to save his communist island from its economic disaster — a catastrophe that's sending record numbers of Cuban migrants to the U.S.' southern border — but experts who follow Cuba's financial spiral suggest that's not really the case.

With chronic food shortages and power outages only getting worse in Cuba — a product of the pandemic, U.S. economic sanctions but most of all, say economists, the regime's failed if not calamitous statist policies — Díaz-Canel last week went on a tour of what few allies Cuba has left who can lend it money and oil: China, Russia, Turkey and Algeria.

Since returning, Díaz-Canel has been claiming those countries have rescued Cuba from its emergency.

"We've received payment facilities to move forward," he declared, pointing to debt restructuring and additional pledges of fuel.

But Cuba economic and energy experts caution that while some countries did agree to restructure the country's debt, that’s a bit like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

“It was a beggar’s tour," said John Kavulich, who heads the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York and spoke to WLRN from Istanbul, Turkey.

"For the Cuban government to say that this was a success is tortuous logic. It was somewhat embarrassing. He was met with stony silence, particularly from the Turkish government," he added.

Kavulich notes that the countries Díaz-Canel visited showed little if any interest in aiding Cuba beyond rudimentary debt relief. He says that’s largely because those governments were hoping to hear him report that Cuba is opening up its economy — which would generate more foreign investment and more money for the island nation to pay back the massive foreign debts it owes.

Instead, they learned Cuba still hasn’t even created a plan for foreign investment in the thousands of private-sector businesses that are now legal there, and whose growth most economists consider vital to its future.

“One of the biggest questions that these people had," said Kavulich, "was: 'You have a re-emerging private sector, which you’ve reauthorized — so where for example, are the regulations foreign investors need to move ahead?'

"Even the Biden Administration this year gave the green light for U.S. investors to acquire licenses to invest in those private Cuban enterprises. The bottom line is that no money’s coming in.”

A big fear is that as long as Cuba can get allies to restructure its debt — and if the U.S. continues to ease economic sanctions against Cuba's chief financial benefactor, Venezuela — it will keep dragging its feet on liberalizing the economy.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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