Havana and Pyongyang

The protests in Cuba last month should have come as no surprise. During the first term of the Obama Presidency, the administration lightened travel restrictions for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba, and Raul Castro opened Cuba’s state-controlled markets. Decentralization in agriculture, real estate, and small businesses did not lead to the complete absence of state authority but a lessening of economic restrictions on personal profit. These reforms began in 2009, and the number of Cuban self-employed tripled by 2013. In 2014, diplomatic ties continued towards restoration. The American Embassy in Cuba re-opened. Pope Francis brokered bilateral agreements to exchange prisoners. Remittances flourished from Cuban-American citizens into Cuba with no caps on the amount. Obama and Raul Castro were working together toward acceptable economic liberalization of the Cuban markets. Airlines offered commercial flights from the U.S. to Havana after a 50-year cessation.

Fidel Castro died in November 2016, just as Trump was elected U.S. President. An ominous indication of the Obama-Castro positive diplomatic relations coming to an end. Trump reversed all of Obama’s advances with Cuba and a reinstated embargo on trade, travel, and any commerce between American and Cuban businesses. No more cruise ships, flights, or U.S. dollars into Cuba’s economy. Economic sanctions were re-imposed, costing Cuba $130 billion. The Trump administration went further, sanctioning shipments of oil from Cuban-friendly Venezuela, essentially cutting off any help to Cuba.

With the onset of COVID-19, economic conditions in Cuba worsened. I was there and saw tourism wane; the demand dropped for tour rides in antique cars, hotels offered larger rooms at no additional charge, and top restaurants owned by new entrepreneurs were near empty. The people felt the worsening economic conditions during the pandemic in terms of food and medicine shortages. The country leaders felt the sanctions in terms of not being able to subsidize sectors of the economy that were previously blossoming. Cuba lost ninety percent of foreign currency inflows from tourism. Protests were inevitable.

Enter Kim Jong-un. Communists have to stick together these days. North Korea has had friendly relations with Cuba for over 60 years. However, the leaders of the two countries have stepped up their camaraderie in recent years. The renewed relationship began before the protests. And, much like when a couple falls deeper in love after a traumatic event, the Cuban protests served as the trauma to bind Pyongyang and Havana together. The Cuban people were protesting to end the regime. Communist leaders do not like the world to see citizens demanding democracy. Therefore, North Korea, China, and Russia have come together to blame the U.S. for “inciting” the protests.

One could say the U.S. “incited” the protests due to Trump closing all economic doors that Obama opened. I contend the global lesson is more extensive than that; Cuban leaders and citizens had a taste of financial freedom and friendly relations with the most powerful country in the world. Raul Castro even attended the UN General Assembly (UNGA) with Obama in 2015 after an absence of 55 years. The last time Cuba was present at UNGA was in 1960 when Fidel Castro spoke for four hours on the UN floor. Raul’s attendance marked a resumption of diplomatic cooperation. Raul's economic reforms marked a shift towards a Socialist Market Economy.

China and Russia understand the benefits of a Socialist Market Economy and a Mixed Economy, respectively, while North Korea’s Command Economy remains tightly coordinated by the government. North Korea’s economy will barely grow in 2021 (in 2019, pre-pandemic it only grew 0.4% ). At Havana’s time of weakness, Pyongyang seeks a friend to share kindred misery. Pyongyang is stepping up to lend support to Havana to gain and train Cuba’s Miguel Diaz-Canel on how to be a real communist. Could a nuclear program arise from this? Another Cuban Missile Crisis to come in 2030? Both countries make up half the list of U.S. Sponsors of Terrorism, the others being Iran and Syria. How things change, countries formerly on the list were Iraq, Libya, South Yemen, and Sudan. Nevertheless, Kim Jong-un hopes to find a real friend in Diaz-Canal since Dennis Rodman has retired from diplomatic relations.

On the geopolitical stage, the decline of democracy is the new buzz-phrase. With Cuban citizens carrying banners that say “End Communism,” democracy is still alive.

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