Why the Situation in Cuba Is Deteriorating

In Brief

Why the Situation in Cuba Is Deteriorating

Cuba’s authoritarian regime has failed to avert an economic crisis, repair decaying state institutions, and prevent the country’s largest outflow of migrants since the 1960s.

Cuba’s communist regime is at its weakest point in decades. The island’s economic woes, brain drain, regime persecution of dissidents, and decaying state institutions are all exacting a high toll, but given authorities’ repressive hold on society, it’s unlikely that change is on the horizon.

What major challenges does Cuba face? 

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Cuba’s centrally planned economy has been mired by stagnation for decades. But over the past five years, the pillars propping up the island’s already feeble economy collapsed one by one, sending it into a tailspin. First, Venezuela’s socialist autocracy, which had lavished cheap oil on Cuba, saw oil output diminish under that regime’s mismanagement, thus cutting down on Cuba’s energy supply. Next, conservative and right-wing governments, such as those of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Colombian President Iván Duque, won office across Latin America and ended exploitative arrangements under which Cuba sent medics abroad and garnered most of their wages. And in the United States, the Donald Trump administration tightened sanctions in place for decades and cut off remittances to the island. 

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic. Cuba’s 2020 border closure decimated tourism and contributed to the second-largest economic contraction in Latin America that year, after Venezuela’s. But Cuba, unlike its Caribbean neighbors, never saw tourism fully rebound. By October 2022, the number of international visitors was still below half [article in Spanish] the total for the same month in 2019. And although Cuba pivoted to allowing some forms of small private businesses in 2021, progress on additional market reforms has stalled. Economic dysfunction is one of the primary reasons that hundreds of thousands of Cubans have left the island. 

How has Cuba fared under President Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez?

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In 2018, Díaz-Canel—a lifelong Communist Party insider—succeeded Raúl Castro, brother of revolutionary-turned-dictator Fidel Castro, as president of Cuba. This marked the first time that a Castro did not hold the position. Three years later, Díaz-Canel was appointed the first secretary of the ruling Communist Party of Cuba. Mismanagement and dysfunction, already acute before, have worsened under his leadership. 

People wait in a line outside to buy foreign currency in Havana, Cuba.
People wait in a line outside to buy foreign currency in Havana, Cuba. Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

In 2021, Díaz-Canel ended a nearly two-decade-old dual currency system, producing one of the sharpest currency devaluations in the world. Cuba, which imports around 70 percent of its food, has also seen food prices soar. Meanwhile, the island’s inflation rate is one of the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean, at approximately 200 percent, and Cuba’s rate seems to be declining more slowly than others in the region. And like many of his regional neighbors, Díaz-Canel oversaw a troubled response to the pandemic, which revealed the fragility of Cuba’s health-care system as hospitals ran out of oxygen and basic medicines.

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The general dysfunction has intensified already widespread discontent, but Díaz-Canel has shown no appetite for political liberalization. Instead, he passed a new penal code further criminalizing dissent in May 2022. A year before that, tens of thousands of Cubans took to the streets in nationwide protests, Cuba’s largest in nearly three decades. Although Díaz-Canel cracked down, jailing nearly four hundred demonstrators and clamping down on internet and social media access across the island, protests flared up again in October 2022 after Hurricane Ian plunged Cuba’s deteriorating electrical power grid into a prolonged blackout.

How do the March 2023 election results reflect Cubans’ growing discontent?

Historically, turnout in Cuba’s one-party legislative elections—in which there are only as many permitted candidates as seats available in the National Assembly—routinely topped 95 percent. State-run media, employers, and local government officials pressure Cubans to vote, and people can face consequences if they abstain. Even so, on March 26, a record share of Cubans—one in four—abstained from voting or spoiled or left their ballots blank: their only means of voting against the regime. More notable, however, was that overall turnout declined 10 percent compared to the last National Assembly vote in 2018. Likewise, a September 2022 referendum on a new family code legalizing same-sex marriage and November 2022 municipal elections both saw abstention rates reach new heights. These are signs that Cubans are increasingly willing to defy pressure to participate in legitimizing the regime. On April 19, Díaz-Canel was ratified for a new five-year term by 459 of 462 legislators present in the National Assembly.

Is change possible?

Even as mass protests and record-setting abstention rates signal widespread discontent, Cuba’s repressive, one-party system closes all routes to bottom-up change. Cubans are more likely to continue voting with their feet as they seek to escape economic chaos and repression. Since fiscal year 2021, some 374,000 Cubans, or about 3 percent of the island’s population, have been detained at the southern U.S. border in the largest wave of Cuban emigration in decades. The journey north was made easier after Nicaragua announced in November 2021 that it was lifting its visa requirement for Cuban nationals, a move that appears to have served Cuba’s regime by opening a pressure valve for discontent. 

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Additionally, Cuba’s dense state intelligence network, which permeates local institutions and civil society, and the threat of long prison sentences for political activism make it difficult for Cubans to organize. Still, the island’s multiple crises—paired with the unprecedented generational turnover in power from regime founders to the men and women of Díaz-Canel’s generation—could stoke further instability and dissent.

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