The U.S. Coast Guard said on Sunday it was suspending the search for 10 Cuban migrants, who were lost at sea after their ship capsized 16 miles south of Key West, Florida. In addition to the 10 missing, two other Cubans were found dead, while only eight survived the trip.
While the number of Cuban migrants trying to reach the United States is far lower than the number seen before 2017, the deteriorating economic conditions on the island following the tourism collapse and the drop in subsidies from Venezuela have leading more and more people to attempt the dangerous journey. .
Reports indicate that the group of Cubans left the port of Mariel, west of Havana, on May 23 to see their ship capsize and disappear on Wednesday evening. Neovys Morales, a family friend of one of the migrants, told ABC Miami: “It was a rustic boat – what Cubans call ‘a balsa’ – a raft made of barrels.
The disaster is the biggest loss of life among Cuban migrants since last November, when a group of 17 people left northwest Cuba aboard a fishing boat and were never heard from again. In a separate incident, a group of 11 migrants were intercepted by the coast guard off Islamorada, a small group of islands in the Florida Keys. A man on the raft was dead, apparently due to a loss of necessary medication when the boat capsized during the voyage.
Most of those recovered at sea by the Coast Guard are expected to be “repatriated”, that is, sent back to Cuba, although it is not clear if this will be the fate of the eight people found off Key West. Last week two different groups of Cubans, 29 in all, were banned and returned to the island. Already, since the start of the exercise in October, the Coast Guard claims to have captured 308 Cubans at sea, a sharp increase from the previous year, in which only 49 were caught attempting the attempt. .
These figures are a far cry from the number of those who attempted the trip before former US President Barack Obama ended the “wet, dry” policy from January 2017, in one of his last acts. in function. Under this policy, which began in 1995, Cuban migrants who were able to make it ashore were able to easily stay in the United States and apply for residency. In 2016, 1,845 Cubans arrived in the United States in this way, while in 2018 the number fell to just 107.
Since the end of the “wet feet, dry feet” policy, Cuban migrants have been treated just as monstrously by US immigration authorities as other migrants and refugees. In addition, legal channels for migration have all but disappeared after the closure of consular services at the United States Embassy in Cuba by the Trump administration in September 2017.
Previously, 20,000 visas per year were issued to Cubans wishing to legally migrate to the United States. However, State Department officials halted processing of visa applications due to alleged “attacks” causing brain damage and other troubling symptoms that they say were suffered by CIA agents and police officers. American diplomats stationed in Cuba.
While no real evidence was produced to support these claims, the shutdown of consular services was very much in line with not only the anti-immigrant stance of the Trump administration. Trump also reversed many of the measures taken by the Obama administration to normalize relations with Cuba in an attempt to exacerbate the crisis on the island and instigate regime change, a long-term goal of reactionaries in Miami and in Washington DC
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the growing crisis, which had already reached an advanced stage due to the continued tightening of economic screws by the Trump administration and the economic collapse of Venezuela, a close ally of Havana. The latter had supplied Cuba with oil on extremely favorable terms since 2000. Due to the drop in Venezuelan production, driven by US sanctions and the fall in the price of crude oil and other raw materials in 2014, Cuban shipments in from Venezuela fell by almost half, from around 110,000 barrels per day to around 55,000 as of 2016.
Although Cuba has been less severely affected than many other Latin American countries due to its relatively advanced public health infrastructure and has recorded only around 950 deaths, the Cuban government has estimated that the economy has shrunk by 11% last year, the biggest contraction since 1993. Travel around the world has led to a sharp drop in tourism, with visitors to the island only 1.1 million in 2020, up from around 4 million these last years. Economy and Planning Minister Alejandro Gil said the country expects to see just 2.2 million visitors in 2021.
In addition, Cuban sugar producer AZCUBA reported that this year’s sugar harvest was about a third lower than expected, and at 816,000 tonnes, the smallest harvest since 1908. Sugar production has been affected by a combination of a lack of fuel for milling and harvesting sugar. , as well as outbreaks of COVID-19 among workers in the sugar industry.
The reduction in hard currencies resulting from these and other developments led to shortages of all kinds of imports, which fell 40 percent from the previous year. Cuba imports about 80 percent of its food and other essentials. The scarcity of hard currencies and pressure on imports also led to the end of the dual currency system in January of this year, which effectively served as a subsidy to both Cuban industry and individuals.
Cuban state-owned companies have a year to balance their books, but many state-owned companies are expected to be made insolvent by the change, preventing them from taking advantage of previous favorable exchange rates. Prices have risen considerably as a result of these measures, with official inflation estimated at 160%. The wages and pensions of public sector workers have been increased from 400% to 500% in an attempt to soften the shock, but the increase does not apply to those working in the growing private sector, which officially has around 600,000 people, or around 13%. of the work force.
Far from offering any help to its close neighbor, the Biden administration has maintained Trump’s policy towards Cuba. While he campaigned to reverse measures that “have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights,” nothing has changed since Biden entered. to the White House. Indeed, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced on May 14 that Cuba was placed on a list of countries that “do not fully cooperate with the counterterrorism efforts of the United States”, along with Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela. As far as Cuba is concerned, the decision was largely symbolic, as Trump had already placed Cuba on the list of sponsor states of terrorism before leaving office.
Juan S. Gonzalez, senior director of the White House National Security Council for the Western Hemisphere, told the Miami herald Andres Oppenheimer, the Biden administration has “no major urgency to invest much time” on Cuba “unless we see concrete things,” noting that “human rights will be a key factor in any conversation we may have with the regime “.
Biden is no doubt hoping that his aggressive stance on Cuba will translate into electoral support for Democrats among right-wing American Cubans in Florida.
In the midst of this crisis, the Cuban Communist Party (CPC) held its eighth congress from April 16 to 19. Notably, Raúl Castro resigned his post as first secretary of the CPC, handing over the office to Miguel Díaz-Canel, marking the first time since the Cuban revolution that a Castro did not hold an official leadership position. President of Cuba since 2019, Díaz-Canel is a trusted civil servant, whose main goal is to find a way to maintain the bureaucracy’s grip on political power while trying to appropriate the country’s remaining assets and to expose more of its economy to market forces.
Further changes in this direction were announced in February, when the government announced an expansion of the private sector. The list of approved private sector activities has grown from just 127 to over 2,000, although supplies and credit remain scarce.
In a speech to Congress, Díaz-Canel noted that while the US embargo and sanctions were a huge obstacle, “In asserting this truth, there is no intention of hiding the shortcomings of our own reality, which has been discussed several times. Over the past three decades, the economic, commercial and financial blockade [has been] intensified opportunistically and with bad intentions in times of great crisis so that hunger and misery can cause a social explosion that undermines the legitimacy of the Revolution.
With an economic downturn that threatens to rival the “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba indeed faces the specter of social upheaval. The challenge for the working class remains to build a Cuban section of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) and forcefully reject the predation of both US imperialism and the Cuban bureaucracy.