Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Never-Ending Party

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 16, 2012 --  

Cuban communism survives by letting the troublesome leave and finding other folks to pay the bills.

When Hugo Chavez was re-elected as president last week, the biggest celebration was probably not in Venezuela, but Cuba. Since coming to power, Chavez has been the communist holdout's biggest benefactor, providing it oil without asking for hard currency in return. Had Chavez fallen from power, the Cuban regime might have been on the way out, too.

As we commemorate 50 years since the Cuban missile crisis, it is interesting to consider just how many times the regime has been saved from near oblivion. In its early days, Cuba infuriated the United States by nationalizing U.S. owned businesses without compensation. It's first brush with death was the Bay of Pigs invasion, but the CIA-organized counter-revolutionaries were too disorganized and unlucky to prevail. Fearing a full U.S. invasion, Fidel Castro hitched his fate to the Soviet Union, and soon found himself facing nuclear oblivion -- along with the rest of us -- as the missile crisis unfolded five decades ago. Only when it ended with a U.S. promise not to invade the island did the Cuban government enjoy a few decades of stability -- until the Soviet Union fell.

This was the government's next near-death experience, but it was rescued by fellow leftist Chavez who replaced Soviet aid with Venezuela's oil largesse after coming to power in 1999. Chavez's narrowly defeated opponent in last week's election, Henrique Capriles, claimed that Venezuela gives Cuba $4 billion worth of oil each year in return for a mere $0.8 billion in services from Cuban doctors and other professionals.1 That amounts to a subsidy of over $3 billion per year.

Chavez's removal of two cancerous tumors in Cuba, and his visibly weakened demeanor creates widespread speculation that he will not be able to complete his term, forcing early elections that Capriles would win.

Could this finally be the end of communism in Cuba? Not necessarily.

Without a doubt, subsidies have helped the regime survive, but Venezuela isn't the only potential source. Cuba is unique in that it is a symbol of anti-Americanism. Should Hugo Chavez fall from power, it is always possible that the nation's iconic status will inspire another authoritarian country with mineral wealth and a desire to stick it to America (Iran? Russia?) to pick up the regime's tab.

Cuba's anti-American allies are not its only source of support. After Venezuela's $3 billion, the second biggest benefactor is the vehemently anti-communist Cuban exile community, which provides around $1 billion in remittances each year.2 The money goes to family members, not the government, but there is no question that the extra cash takes pressure off the communist government to provide for its people.

This group of exiles continues to grow. In the past week, a group of Cuban soccer players in Toronto defected and made their way to America3, and ten refugees on a homemade raft survived a landing on the resort island of Isla Mujeres in Mexico after losing 13 of their compatriots on a nearby reef.4 About 30,000 Cubans leave the island each year5, the majority settling in the United States where many soon begin sending even more cache back to the island.

Remittances aside, this "release valve" has long been a unique survival tactic of the Castro regime. Because U.S. policy allows permanent residence to Cubans landing on its shores, the government can easily rid itself of extra mouths and noisy dissidents by letting them go to America. In the most infamous case in 1980, the regime sent 125,000 people to America, many of them released prisoners and mental patients, in the Mariel Boat Lift incident.

It is therefore no surprise that Cuba has not seen mass democracy protests like in the Arab world or Russia -- most potential protesters and revolutionaries already live in Miami. All told, a million people have settled in the United States since the communists came to power -- out a current Cuban population of only 11 million.

Compared with the Cuban Missile Crisis fifty years ago, things have changed far more in America than in Cuba. Today, few Americans would consider a major war for the likes of Cuba. Most just don't care. Sure, Republicans make angry speeches about the Castro brothers as they court Cuban voters and donors in Miami. But they are probably secretly happy to have the issue for perennial fundraising. Just as Democrats don't want to lose a campaign issue by automatically tying the minimum wage to inflation, for Republican politicians, toppling the Cuban regime would be the most foolish thing they could do.

These factors all suggest that the days of Cuba's Communist regime are not numbered. That's bad news for the Cuban people who live in poverty without modern amenities and basic freedoms. So long as the nation's Communist Party has believers or power-hungry replacements for the Castro brothers, there will be plenty of exiles and anti-American oil despots to pay to keep the party going.

Related Web Columns:

Invading the Next Frontier
The Coming Boom in Cuban Real Estate
, September 28, 2004

America Libre, March 24, 1998


1. Wall Street Jounal, Cuba's Stake in the Chavez Presidency, October 8, 2012

2. The New York Times, An Airlift, Family by Family, Bolsters Cuba’s Economy, June 11, 2011

3. Toronto Star, Missing Cuban Soccer Players Crossed Border, U.S. Official Says, October 13, 2012

4. BBC News, Cuban Refugees' Raft Sinks Off Mexico's Isla Mujeres, October 12, 2012

5. The Miami Herald, Number of Cuban Migrants has Surged in the Past Year, October 13, 2011