Cuba Stories: Venezuelan Oil, Buena Vista Social Club

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 12/19/2014 01:30:00 AM
Some Buena Vista Music Club musicians are gone but not forgotten.
I actually watched Obama's announcement that the United States has entered a process of normalizing relations with Cuba. As something I've been wishing for a long time, I'm glad it's finally come. Let's face it: at a time when the United States has long since normalized relations with the likes of China and Vietnam, it seems odd that it has held out on doing the same with "Communist" Cuba--especially since it's so much closer to the US. The Cold War's long since been finished, mates, and it's time that both sides realized this.

Now, there are two interesting side stories to the (eventual) lifting of sanctions against Cuba by the United States. First is the notion that the self-destruction of Venezuela amidst sinking oil prices has much to do with Cuba's decision to work with the US. Just as Cuba lost a major benefactor with the fall of the Soviet Union, so is it reportedly working with the Yanquis in the expectation that Venezuelan aid in the form of oil shipments in exchange for doctors and other in-kind items will soon end. That is, Venezuela is going broke and won't be willing to supply any sort of bartered goods. After Venezuela folds, there wasn't any sign of anyone else stepping up to the plate:
With Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro unable to contain the world’s fastest inflation and the country’s bonds trading at default levels, Cuban President Raul Castro has been working to diversify the Communist country’s economy away from Venezuela, which provides about 100,000 barrels of oil a day in exchange for medical personnel.

“You only need to look at the economic disaster that is Venezuela and clearly it’s a bad bet to have all your chips in one basket,” Christopher Sabatini, policy director at Council of the Americas, said in phone interview from New York. “That 100,000 barrels per day gift of oil is going to end very soon.”

Cuba’s leaders are well aware of the risks of dependency after the economy collapsed in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed. Since early 2013, Castro has eased travel restrictions, increased incentives for foreign investment and tried to reduce public payrolls. That hasn’t boosted the economy, which is poised to expand 0.8 percent this year, according to Moody’s Investors Service, less than the 2.2 percent forecast by the government at the start of 2014. 
For those following the entertainment scene, you should be familiar with the American rock/crossover artist Ry Cooder who brought the talents of Cuban musicians to the world. After decades of isolation, the Buena Vista Social Club album (which I promptly bought upon release) brought forth dozens of succeeding albums from veteran artists who regularly got together to play their timeless brand of Cuban entertainment. (You may have seen the documentary, too.) As it so happens, TIME recently contacted Ry Cooder, who was unsurprisingly pleased with recent developments:
The embargo is no use. It only brought suffering to men, women and children, like embargoes always do. You ask yourself what venal, grasping, backward looking so and so’s—we could name a few—who benefit? Follow the money, as the man says. We are the only country that did this—and the whole thing was insane. Just stupid.
It may be cliche, but consider the bridging power of music:
Our leading export is this myth of democracy we have. That’s the leading edge of our export efforts. So how can we say to the American people, You can’t do it? The people will go when they want to go! A lot of people went [to Cuba]. It’s a trend, a tendency, something that can’t be stopped. The more people want to join up with other people—Pete Seeger suggested that music was a bridge between classes. He used folk music as a bridge because it’s common to people and it’s easy to learn. He could have people singing together within five minutes. And I’ve seen that happen many times, but never so graphically as within this Buena Vista thing. You may be afraid of Cuba. Are you afraid of Rubén González when he plays the piano? No? Well that’s one less thing you’re afraid of.
Ry Cooder is among the sharpest observers of American life, so it's good to hear that he's actually happy about something his government has done.