Andrew Lewer is Member of Parliament for Northampton South, and previously served as MEP for the East Midlands.
Will our new Government break with EU support for Cuba? Will it align itself with US efforts to pressure Cuba to stop supporting the Maduro dictatorship? This is a useful litmus test of whether a Johnson Government will develop a foreign policy independent of the EU.
Despite Cuba’s central role in propping up the disastrous Chavista dictatorship, we and other EU countries are pretending that isn’t happening and continue to promote investment into Cuba’s dying economy.
As Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the 35-nation Organization of American States, has said, “If we want to help Venezuelans, we must deal with the dictatorship in Cuba. The only military invasion of Venezuela that has occurred began slowly some 20 years ago and has been perpetrated by the armed forces and security, intelligence and counter-intelligence of Cuba.”
Dealing with Cuba is greatly helped by the fact that its Soviet-style centrally planned economy is heading downwards fast. The country has been suffering from a severe food shortage for several months and food rationing has just been made much more extensive.
One Cuban in Havana commented, “Right now, practically nothing is being sold, only rice and tomato puree (300 ml for 33 pesos, more than three working days on a minimum salary). There isn’t any meat, or chickpeas, or hot dogs, or chocolate, or crackers, or bread being sold. Nothing at all really.” Medicines are also in short supply, even pain relief tablets are unavailable. In a welcome respite for the population, state-run newspapers have cut their page count due to shortages of newsprint.
The regime has now ordered ten per cent cuts in power generation to save fuel, and blackouts are expected. Cuba lacks hard currency to buy oil and other goods, due to its inability to make enough products that anyone wants to buy.
Cuba’s foreign trade fell by 25 per cent from 2013 to 2017, with imports dropping to $11.3 billion from $15.6 billion. Sugar, mining and industrial production are now below the levels of 1989, and production of 11 of 13 key agricultural and fishing goods is in decline. Meanwhile the ineffectiveness of its collectivised agriculture forces Cuba to spend $1.5 billion on importing food.
Much of the immediate crisis is a result of the decline in support from Venezuela. The parasitic communist Cuban economy has never been able to survive without financial support from foreign benefactors. Its economic problems were offset in the past by arrangements with leftist allies. Between 1960 and 1990 Cuba received $65 billion from the Soviet Union, three times as much as the amount of aid given to all Latin America through the Alliance for Progress initiative started by President Kennedy. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was after just a few years able to replace Soviet subsidies with Venezuelan ones, due to its oil for repression services deal with Hugo Chavez.
The Cuban regime makes over $8 billion annually by over-charging for doctors sent abroad – while the doctors themselves are paid next to nothing. However, Brazil has sent thousands of Cuban doctors home, and Venezuela, while still supplying subsidised oil, can now only manage much smaller fiscal transfers due to its ruined economy.
Now is the time to apply real pressure on Cuba, both for the benefit of the Cuban and Venezuelan populations. Complying with the Venezuelan National Assembly’s decree and cutting off the 55,000 barrels of oil per day that Maduro unlawfully gives to Cuba would have two highly beneficial effects. Firstly it would greatly raise the cost of Cuba’s military adventure in Venezuela, where Cuban troops and intelligence officers are the main force keeping Maduro in power. Secondly it would help force the Cuban regime to abandon its disastrous Marxist economic system, which condemns the Cuban population to perpetual poverty.
The US Government, to its credit, has responded to the National Assembly’s request by sanctioning some of the vessels that carry oil from Venezuela to Cuba. But more needs to be done and Britain should help by imposing its own sanctions, notably on those involved in insuring such shipping. We can stop the Iranians from sending a tanker of oil to Syria but have not been prepared to support the legitimate President of Venezuela in his effort to stop the illegal shipments of oil to Cuba.
We also need to do what we can to persuade tourists to stop going to Cuba. At a time when there is a dire shortage of food for ordinary Cubans it is quite wrong to divert limited food supplies to feed rich Western tourists.
Taking effective measures now would help Cubans free themselves from a failed economic system and help Venezuelans free themselves from Cuban-imposed repression. This win-win goal should be our target. Will this government have the gumption to break free from the constraints of the EU’s policy weakness and side with the Cuban and Venezuelan people?