2023 was not the year that we Cubans wanted. Nor the one that, even being very realistic, we expected. The people’s expectations and the authorities’ plans ended up being, at least for the vast majority, far above reality.
After the dark times of the pandemic and its consequences in different aspects, unfortunate accidents and natural disasters, and the ineffective application of the Monetary Reorganization, this year promised a panorama with fewer dark clouds over our heads. At least, that’s what many of us thought before it began.
But, although the epidemiological scenario confirmed the recovery of 2022 and the sociocultural life of the country was revived somewhat, the economy once again disappointed and we ended the year in the red. All of this had an impact not only on official reports and statistics but, above all, on people’s pockets and tables, despite the sustained increase in new economic actors like the MSMEs.
The Cuban 2023 was once again marked by the impact of United States sanctions and the stagnation of relations between Washington and Havana. Also by the migratory wave — although slower than the previous year, thanks to the humanitarian parole program —, and the search for new markets and trading partners as a way to alleviate the country’s severe crisis.
The fuel deficit — already common on the island — was once again one of the faces of the crisis, with endless queues at service stations and significant impacts on transportation, industry and electricity generation. Although blackouts were somewhat moderate in relation to 2022, there was no shortage of dark moments, especially in the interior of the country.
We also had a hurricane, Idalia, that affected western Cuba and especially Pinar del Río, where it left significant damage to the electrical infrastructure, homes and agriculture. And at various times of the year, there were episodes of intense rains and floods, both in Havana and in the eastern provinces, which left behind a trail of losses and caused the death of several people.
In 2023 Cuba assumed the pro tempore presidency of the Group of 77 and China, an international organization that it represented in different global forums and of which it organized a summit last September. In addition, the island once again received visits from world leaders and personalities, while the country’s main authorities toured different countries and attended the sessions of the UN General Assembly in New York, where the U.S. embargo/blockade was once again condemned.
Cultural activity and sports experienced an intense calendar, with lights and shadows that merit their own summaries, while Cuban science once again had biotechnological research among its protagonists — with clinical trials and publications on medications such as NeuroEpo, against Alzheimer—, and had chapter of extraordinary relevance in the marine expedition to check Cuba’s coasts.
At a social level, the queues, the skyrocketing prices, the daily shortages and “searches,” and the massive use of the Internet and social media did not decrease, even with the ups and downs of connectivity.
In addition, there was the collapse of buildings, traffic accidents, thefts and other criminal acts, including violent ones, such as the increasingly frequent femicides, which in 2023 exceeded 80, according to activists.
All of this happened in Cuba in the last 12 months. From this vast and unflattering landscape, we highlight five themes that, in our opinion, marked the fate of the year that concluded on the island, waiting for a 2024 that looms with more uncertainties than certainties, although also with the hope of many Cubans that the dark clouds — finally — begin to dissipate above us.
Economy in decline
Even with the disastrous impact of the pandemic, U.S. sanctions and the global economic crisis, together with the recognized inefficiencies and internal difficulties, the government had estimated an economic growth of 3% in 2023. On the other hand, according to what the sector minister announced before the National Assembly, the Cuban economy will end the year in clear reverse, with a contraction of between 1 and 2%.
Practically nothing is saved when we take stock of what happened. Neither agriculture, nor other national productions, nor exports, nor the impact of investments, nor tourism, showed ― exceptions aside ― the expected behavior. The tourism sector in particular did not achieve the desired takeoff and will remain, according to official calculations, just over one million below the 3.5 million planned.
With such a cocktail of problems, “imbalances” and non-compliance, seasoned by the chronic lack of foreign currency that the country suffers, it is not surprising that the shortages worsened and the sustained increase in inflation, with the “accumulated” effects of the previous years. And neither that, given the ineffectiveness of previous strategies and measures, the government will tighten its grip in search of “macroeconomic stabilization” in 2024.
MSMEs in the crosshairs
Since their approval in 2021, micro, small and medium-sized enterprises have been on the rise in Cuba: both from a numerical point of view ― there are already close to 10,000 ― and due to their growing presence in the economic fabric and in the urban landscape of the country. However, almost since their emergence, MSMEs have been in the sights of many and have borne the blame that falls on them and those that do not fall on them as well.
Although only a part of them ― and not the majority ― is dedicated to retail sales, many people, including authorities, hold them responsible for inflation and other socioeconomic imbalances, a debate that became more heated in 2023. Even so, this year they gave encouraging steps, such as an increase in their workforce, their imports and exports, and the meeting with U.S. businesspeople held in Miami.
Right at the end of the year, and as part of the package announced by the government to correct “distortions,” new measures arrived aimed at MSMEs and other non-state actors, which will keep them in the spotlight in 2024. Among them, new taxes, the creation of a government institute to see to them, tariff increases for those who import finished items and discounts for those who import raw materials.
If for the Urgent Spanish Foundation “polarization” is the word of 2023, in Cuba that word could well be “bancarization.” For more than half a year, we Cubans barely heard it in the media, and it was not part of public debates or personal conversations either. However, all this changed in August with the publication of resolution 111 of the Central Bank.
The measure, defended tooth and nail by the authorities, sought to reduce the excess of money circulating outside the banking system and thus relieve the lifeless coffers of the island’s bank branches. Furthermore, in line with the computerization promoted by the government, it also promoted payments and other electronic operations, while setting limits for cash operations, especially for economic actors.
However, the announcement was received with skepticism and concern by many Cubans, due to its presumed impact on their pockets amid the country’s deep crisis. Months later, the authorities themselves recognized that this process had not managed to reduce cash circulating outside banks or operational difficulties in branches, while electronic payments had not grown as expected either.
Russia to the charge
In a 2023 economic quagmire for Cuba, Russia entered the arena even more strongly than in previous years. With the war in Ukraine and the United States sanctions as a backdrop, Havana and Moscow reaffirmed their “strategic partnership” in 2023, although the results of this alliance are not — at least not yet — the lifesaver for the Cuban economy that many imagined.
High-level visits in both directions ― including one by Prime Minister Manuel Marrero to Russia and others by Foreign Minister Serguéi Lavrov and the Vice President of the Government Dimitri Chernishenko to Cuba ―, the holding of a publicized business forum in Havana, the delivery of donations to the island, the development of joint projects, and the signing of various agreements during the year were part of an intense bilateral agenda.
The exchange also included the increase in flights and exports from Russia, the increase in Russian tourism to Cuba ― which until November reported an increase of 343.8% ―, the officialization of MIR cards on the island, the announcement of an upcoming RusMarket in Havana, and the signing of a trade and economic cooperation plan until 2030 as confirmation of the “priority direction” of bilateral ties.
Passport and dialogue with emigration
Beyond the incessant migratory flow out of the country and the political polarization of a part of the Cuban emigration, 2023 brought good news from the island for Cubans residing abroad. One of them responded to old and repeated complaints from emigrants: the extension of the validity period of the passport to ten years, the elimination of the extension requirement and the reduction of its cost at consulates.
This measure, in force since July, was accompanied by two others: equalizing the length of stay in Cuba for Cubans residing abroad and their foreign relatives (spouses and children), and the establishment, for those who emigrated before 1971, the requirement to present their Cuban passport to enter the country. In addition, the extension of uninterrupted stay abroad beyond 24 months remains in force.
As the culmination of the year, the 4th The Nation and Emigration Conference was finally held in November, postponed due to the pandemic. The meeting, held in Havana, brought together more than 360 Cubans residing in 57 countries, who held exchanges with the authorities about greater participation of emigrants in national life, as a necessary path to heal wounds and contribute as a whole to the development of the country.