Do Sanctions Work? Cuba Begs to Differ

The West has launched economic warfare on Russia with its severest sanctions yet, in the hope that they would cripple the country faster and with less loss of life than with open hostilities. And yet, as I visited Cuba for the sixth time in a span of 17 years, I saw no change in this country that has been on the western sanctions list for over 60 years. Let me elaborate with this article that is part travelogue, part political observation.

I’ve conditioned myself to the idea that “some things do not work some of the time, but eventually they do” in Cuba, a country that time seems to have abandoned since the 1950s, if you look at its antique cars that have gone from wrecks to tourist attractions. And that was true, this time too. Toilet flushes, paper dispensers, and dryers would go on the blink, sometimes permanently; cafe con leche would turn into cafe non leche on certain days when the cow was uncooperative; point-of-sale (POS) terminals that had sprouted in every shop since my last visit suddenly lost connectivity in the middle of a purchase, forcing me to part with spare cash until I was rendered tip-handicapped towards the end of my visit and therefore not worthy of service even in an all-inclusive resort.

What was also new this time was that my suitcase was broken into at the airport upon arrival and half my belongings stolen, destroying my image of “safe, Socialist Cuba”—I guess the ravages of the pandemic that have reduced hotels to 30 % occupancy in 2022, after the two prior years of shutdown, are starting to bite—hunger trumps morality even among Socialists. All my new clothes, including a pack of face masks, were gone; my old clothes and a sleeve of golf balls were left behind, indicating the profile of whodunit.

The rarest commodity in this country is socks, I discovered, when I went shopping to replace my stolen clothes. Even brand name sports stores that sell shoes do not sell socks—I guess, no one wears them. Then why the heck were all of mine stolen? How the hell does one return to freezing Canada without socks? Combing the streets, I hoped I might see my old socks hanging in a street vendor’s stall, just so I could buy them back, but no luck! All the street vendors in Varadero had packed up their once-booming businesses—there just weren’t enough tourists anymore. Finally, I found some tight, polka-dotted ones in garish colours that I gladly paid a fortune for. I bet I can now give Mr. Trudeau a run for his money in the Outrageous Sock Department.

Another development was that menus in restaurants had disappeared—good, I thought, for this country struggles with paper, just ask a Cuban writer who is unable to publish a paperback anymore because that scarce commodity, paper, is required for more important functions like textbooks for students and toilet paper for tourists. Now, menus are accessible via a QR code at your table—so, do travel with a smart phone that has good internet connectivity, or you’ll have to take your chances with the server’s suggestions in unintelligible English.

The biggest change since my last visit in February 2020, was the elimination of the CUC in favour of the Cuban Peso. What a flop! Now the national currency is good only for tip money. Prices in tourist shops are quoted in US$ and Euro, and the CDN$ is accepted at a terrible conversion rate to the US$, and yes credit cards, when POS terminals are cooperative, work and bill in US$. The official conversion rate from CDN$ to Cuban Peso is (at this time of writing) 18 (Peso) to 1 (CDN$), but the black-market rate—openly available through bartenders, tour guides, beachcombers, and other tourist industry types—is 45 to 1. Locals can purchase imported goods but only with a government-issue debit card which has to be restocked with foreign currency—hence Cubans with debit cards have become de-facto agents for their government in corralling precious foreign exchange which the banks have failed to acquire through their lousy official exchange rate. And life goes on in the new normal. Cubans shrug off this currency problem as just another cross to bear.

I visited Havana, my first visit to the capital since 2005, and there was an inversion between Old Havana and New Havana. The old city, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been restored and sandblasted into a clean tourist enclave, replete with boutique hotels, Hemingway’s Bar, forts, art galleries, and historical monuments marking the founding of Havana. The new city, bounded by the famous Malecón, is crumbling after the onslaught of the hurricane in 2017 left an indelible scar on buildings facing the seawall. These damaged edifices cannot simply be razed and rebuilt; they have to be restored to their original states. And restoration takes a lot more time and money, the latter which the country is desperately short of. Perhaps UNESCO should do Cuba a favour and declare all of Havana a World Heritage Site, for the newer city also holds a lot of history on the underbelly of human greed and American capitalism prior to the Revolution. My guide was proud to show me the Mafia-owned hotels in New Havana where notables like Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and Al Capone openly held conferences at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in the 1940s for gangsters from around the world while Frank Sinatra serenaded them.

But all is not downhill—the warm breezes, clear skies, beautiful beaches, and relaxed pace are still here, making Cuba a tourist destination with a twist. And despite food scarcity, Cubans are ingenious at taking a plain cake and slicing it in several different ways to present an assorted array of pastries, all with the same familiar taste—if you are not too drunk on great Cuban rum to figure it out. However, despite the resilience of its people, the new currency-induced inflation makes me wonder whether Cuba would be able to maintain its reputation as a “cheap” destination for much longer. And when “some things don’t work some of the time” in this destination is coupled with rising prices, tourists will look for other cheaper destinations where “things work most of the time,” if there are any to be found in a post-pandemic world.

But the purpose of this story is not about Cuba as a tourist destination in trouble. I elaborated on some of the “surprises” faced by a visitor to show you how this country stoically boxes on at the tourist trade—its prime foreign exchange earner—despite the odds firmly stacked against it, primarily from the US embargo that was lifted briefly under Obama, brought back under Trump, and forgotten by Biden who is busy applying sanctions on bigger fish instead of lifting them. The pandemic piled on the heat, and now the embargo on Russian planes that brought huge numbers of tourists from that country has tightened the screws further on this poor island.

 If Cuba is an example of survival, then all I can say is that sanctions do not work to destroy a country; they only help to mutate its evolution in a different direction. Three whole generations of Cubans have grown up under embargo, and that is their normal now. There is no more collective memory of capitalist times. Those who espoused capitalism in Cuba are either dead or in Miami. Everything is well in Cuba, according to Cubans, where some things don’t work some of the time, but after a while you get used to it.

If Russia is brought to its knees by international sanctions, it too will go through a metamorphosis and evolve differently, just like the old Soviet Union did for 70 years under Communism, and just like Cuba post-Castro. And in a generation from now, the new lifestyle will be embedded in its citizens and the collective memory of “better times” will begin to fade. If the West wants to bring about peace in Europe immediately, they will have to do something more drastic than sanctions, something like regime change in the Russian Federation. Or else, in twenty years, when “Putin’s War” eventually does end (it has to end—the economic cost will exhaust Russia, just like it did when the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to regime change and the collapse of the USSR), we may be taking holidays to another destination, in Europe this time, where “some things do not work some of the time, but eventually they do.”

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