The State Department announced a tightening of the US economic embargo against Cuba, which hurts average Cubans and reverts to failed Cold War policies, explains Cuba specialist Professor Sujatha Fernandes
GREGORY WILPERT: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Gregory Wilpert coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. The Trump Administration presented a list of new restrictions to tighten the US economic embargo against Cuba last week. The new rules include prohibitions for US citizens to do business with 180 companies affiliated with the Cuban government and its military. This includes 83 hotels, car rental agencies, tourist agencies and rum makers, among many other types of businesses. Trump had originally announced the plan to impose new restrictions last June, but only while he was traveling in Asia did the State Department release the new rules. Joining me to discuss the impact of the renewed timing of the US embargo on Cuba and what effect it has on ordinary Cubans is Sujatha Fernandes. Sujatha just returned from a trip to Cuba. She’s a professor of Political Economy and Sociology at the University of Sydney in Australia and the City University of New York. She’s also the author of several books including Cuba Represent. She joins us today from Sydney, Australia. Welcome, Sujatha. SUJATHA FERNANDES: Thank you. Thanks for having me on. GREGORY WILPERT: As I said, you just returned from Cuba and also wrote a piece about your experience there for The Nation Magazine. What do you see as being the most immediate impact that the new restrictions will have for ordinary Cubans? SUJATHA FERNAN: I think that the biggest thing that has happened is the prohibition of people to people travel or what that means is that people can no longer travel to Cuba as an individual, that they have to go as part of a tour group. It’s basically taking us back to before the reforms had happened under the Obama Administration and I think that decline in tourism is going to have a big impact and both those who rely on the tourist industry for an income but also those who benefit from the greater influx of convertible currency and hard currency into the Cuban economy as a result of that tourism. GREGORY WILPERT: Why is it that these restrictions which are supposed to target mostly government institutions will also have an effect beyond the government institutions on private citizens? SUJATHA FERNANDES: Because I think, ultimately, the Trump Administration doesn’t care about ordinary Cubans. The rhetoric is that we want to stop any money going to the Cuban government but we want people to go and spend money and support private home rentals and private businesses. Well, the reality is that this approach, just in a blanket way, penalizes everybody including those private home rentals who, if you can’t travel individual to the individual anymore and you’re going as a tour group, you’re more likely to stay in a hotel or some larger accommodation. You’re not likely to stay in a private home rental. There are still a lot of countries that of which tourists visit Cuba which don’t have the kind of restrictions that exist from the United States. And so there is tourism from other places but with last year’s reforms there was a large market increase of tourists from the US. Now that that is going to start already because I heard from other Americans traveling from the US to Cuba, it didn’t happen to me, but others said that there were officials who got on the plane who were watching them who, even though this before the regulations last week came down, they were still being monitored and watched by people getting on planes. There was already this strategy of intimidation and now we’ve seen that actually those regulations have passed. I just heard that Alaska Air has now stopped flights into Cuba or is reducing them. All of these measures mean that that large influx of tourism, which was very helpful for the Cuban economy, now is very much going to be declining. GREGORY WILPERT: Right. In your article, you also mentioned that the opening that President Obama initiated three years ago has left a very strong or indelible mark on Cuban society already. Tell us a little bit about how that opening has affected Cuban society in the last three years. SUJATHA FERNANDES: Like I said in an earlier article that I wrote a couple of, wrote when this happened, these changes happened at the beginning of last year when I had visited. I think that they impacted Cubans unevenly, that they definitely helped those, for instance, who are in the tourist industry, those who run successful private businesses like restaurants like hotels like people who have some level of investment in the tourist industry or who work or who have family in the tourist industry. While those who were not, who were cut off from the tourist industry. And that generally means the poor Cubans, older Cubans, young Cubans, people without the same connections were facing the same amount of difficulty. What we began to see when the changes happened was this kind of gap in Cuban society. What’s happening now is that really all Cubans are now starting to face this. Again, the changes will be differentiated. Those Cubans who benefited under the openings who had some level of stability, economic stability will see a decline in their income but they’ll be better off than the Cubans who right now have very little access to the convertible peso, which is the higher value currency. And most of those Cubans are played, still, in the peso that’s only worth 27 pesos to one of the convertible currency or CUC. Those inequalities are going to be more widened. Those Cubans who are already vulnerable are going to be made much more vulnerable by these changes. GREGORY WILPERT: Just wondering if you could give us a little bit longer perspective on life in Cuban. I mean, it went through a difficult phase, as we know, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which was known as the Special Period. Just give us a brief rundown how things have changed since then leading up to the present moment. SUJATHA FERNANDES: Yes, well in the decade of the 90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union that was a very, very difficult period for Cubans and a lot of people say if we survived that, we can survive anything. And that’s what I’ve heard being said a lot. Once the regulations came down last week I was there talking to Cubans and they all said we survived the Special Period, we can survive this. And then during the period of the late 90s, the decade of the first milen-, the first decade of the new millennium, there were a lot of changes being made in Cuban society. Private businesses were legalized. There was more trade agreements made with countries in Europe, countries in Asia, Latin America. And all of these things, Cubans insertion back into local markets, helped it to once again, people to get back on their feet to get the economy to get transport. Basic services that were completely cut-off after the Soviet Union collapsed began to be re-established in that period. Once we began to see the Pink Tide, the rise of Venezuela, the kind of exchange of oil for doctors, all these kind of things that happened in the period of the first decade of the 2000s really assisted Cuba to become much more strong economically. And then, of course, once the changes under Obama happened, that, again, began to put Cuba on better footing. We’ve seen a number of changes in Cuban society over the last few decades. When I first visited in 1998, the differences between then and when I visited, say, last January, was incredible because to see just a vibrancy, to see the jazz clubs not filled entirely with tourists but to be filled with Cubans. And to see Cuban life once more returning back to that normality was really good. Now, I think we’re seeing, back again, a period of hardship. We’re seeing, you know, with the sort of crisis situation that Venezuela finds itself in and many of the Pink Tide nations, the rise of the resurgence of the Right across Latin America. The difficulties that Cuba’s having in this period are just being compounded now by these regulations passed by the Trump Administration. GREGORY WILPERT: Hmm. And, finally, who do you think, who would you say do Cubans generally blame for these hardships? Their own government? The US? Or both? Or somebody else? SUJATHA FERNANDES: Well, it’s interesting because I think that part of the whole idea always between tightening the embargo has been to try to spur revolution against the Cuban government; to have an uprising of Cubans against their government. And it’s always achieved the opposite. And right now, especially because Trump is such an odious figure for Cubans and for so many people, that, I didn’t hear anybody blaming the Cuban government. In fact, all I heard was this very, very strong anger. And uniting all kinds of Cubans. Cubans who see themselves as dissidents. Cubans who see themselves as anti-government. Cubans who see themselves as pro-government. In a very blanket way, everybody was blaming Trump for what’s going on right now and I think that it’s really having the opposite effect to what I think that he hopes it would have. GREGORY WILPERT We’re going to leave it here for now. Thanks so much, Sujatha, for having joined us and we’ll make sure to get back to you again once things change, as they so often do. Thanks again, Sujatha. SUJATHA FERNANDES: Thanks for having me on the show. GREGORY WILPERT: And thank for you for watching The Real News Network.