Last year, while moderating a presentation at Columbia University, one expert predicted that within the year, Cuba’s economy would reach the same levels of scarcity as it did during the “Special Period” when the Soviet Union collapsed.
The events associated with the Special Period were unprecedented protests, repression, purging of the military and an exit to those wanting to leave the island — an escape valve for the regime.
The logic followed that if Cuba were to reach its boiling point temperature again, its people would revolt again, and on July 11, 2021, tens of thousands of Cubans rebelled against the regime.
Communist regimes rely on two things for power: (1) people’s dependency on them for basic needs and (2) the threat of physical harm or incarceration for anyone questioning them. Without these, their power disintegrates. As predicted, Cuba’s looming economic collapse was a forecast for civil unrest in 2021.
And just as it happened during the Special Period, the protests were quelled violently and again, military leaders were removed, or in this case, more than a dozen mysteriously died.
Unlike the Special Period, the U.S. did not allow the regime to open the floodgates of immigration, this time preventing the regime from flooding south Florida with refugees to not create an escape valve for the mounting pressure on the island.
More importantly, during the Special Period, the regime had Fidel Castro, then in his 60s surrounded by his key henchmen. Today, there is no Fidel. Raul, a mere shadow of his brother, languishes out of sight in his 90s. While still in charge, their entire generation is giving way to a “younger” generation of 60-something-year-old gangsters, more interested in amassing personal fortunes than in being historical figures.
It turns out that without an escape valve, repression alone will not allow for the regime’s survival once it can no longer provide basic needs.
Such economic realities cut the people’s dependence on the government. It is why the regime has intensified its efforts to place friendly governments in places like Chile, Peru and now Colombia, where we see a sudden uptick in Cuban intelligence operations culminating in the expulsion of several Cuban diplomats from the South American country.
The regime needs a new sponsor to replace Venezuela. Its situation is so precarious that experts now agree that even without any U.S. military intervention, a direct and strict oil embargo would push the regime toward collapse within weeks.
So, what has held the regime together, and what, if anything, can preserve it in 2022? The Biden administration’s inaction and mixed messaging.
During the July protests, the administration went from calling Cuba “a failed state” to saying the Cuban government must do better for its people — a chilling message to any Cuban military officer thinking of opposing the regime because it suggests the U.S. prioritizes stability over regime change.
So should we expect any change in Cuba if the U.S. is unwilling to intervene? Maybe. But the U.S. response is only one factor. The economic realities and the personal profiles of the regime’s leadership make it more likely than not that change will come soon. American inaction can delay this change, but unless the regime can find a new sponsor, change is inevitable in 2022 or 2023 — and the U.S. should have a plan, so it is not caught off-guard — again.
The regime’s fall will be welcomed not only for the sake of democracy but for the treasure trove of intelligence we would obtain and also the elimination of an enemy base 90 miles from our shores.
But the main objective should focus on how to help Cuba transition to a U.S.-allied, free-market democracy effectively so that it does not become a failed state and its new generation of communist leadership does not morph into a Russian-style oligarchy 90 miles from our shores.
What happens next?
For the past year, Florida International University, in collaboration with Columbia University, the Havel Library and other institutions, has been developing a plan — IDEAs for Cuba — to achieve this very goal. The plan seeks to utilize Title II of the Cuban Democracy and Economic Solidarity Act (LIBERTAD Act/the embargo), which directs the president to outline a plan for assistance to Cuba.
Based on Title II, IDEAs sets forth a Cuban “Marshall Plan” to be implemented as soon as Cuba takes the required steps towards democracy, including allowing internationally supervised free and fair elections, releasing political prisoners and recognizing basic civil liberties.
The plan includes a path to loan guarantees to reconstruct collapsing airports, roads, hospitals and schools and build one million housing units, eliminating the island’s purported housing deficit. Adopting this plan now will allow the embargo to continue, but the emphasis would shift to the promise of prosperity.
Using and developing such a plan will transform Cuba as failed state and agent of instability in the region, which is where it is headed if the U.S. continues to ignore the looming crisis at its doorstep.
• Marcell Felipe is the founder of IDEAs for Cuba, a project of the Inspire America Foundation in collaboration with Florida International University, Columbia University, the Havel Library and the Czech Foreign Ministry.