2016 was a truly historic year for Cuba
BY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES
The death of Fidel Castro marked the end of a truly historic year for Cuba.
After years of false rumors that he had died, the former Cuban ruler
finally passed away at 10:29 p.m. Nov. 25, according to a statement read
by his brother Raúl on state television. He was 90 years old.
What followed showed the peculiar tastes of authoritarian regimes for
Nine days of mourning, with a state-imposed ban on music and alcohol.
Mass ceremonies in the island's two biggest cities. Images of women
crying and youths shouting "I am Fidel!" His ashes carried across the
island's main highway. People mobilized to stand along the route. And
the unprecedented photos of his widow and five children, handing the urn
to Raúl, who said goodbye to his older brother by tenderly tapping on
The final resting place of Fidel Castro's ashes? A niche in a
controversial rock monolith that is supposed to look like a kernel of
corn but has unleashed fierce criticisms of its design.
Although the death of Castro and his funeral ceremonies were
extraordinary, the entire year seemed unreal, with several sensational
events coming one right after the other.
Obama's unprecedented visit
No U.S. president had set foot on Cuba since 1928. Barack Obama arrived
March 20, and left an indelible impression.
Obama spoke directly to the Cubans, and in a speech to an audience that
included Raúl Castro urged him to not fear "the different voices of the
Cuban people and their ability to talk, to gather and to vote for their
leaders" — words that many Cubans must have doubted they would ever
hear. In a joint news conference during the visit, a clearly upset
Castro denied his government held political prisoners.
"Give me the list of those political prisoners right now and they will
be released. Tell me the names, and if those political prisoners exist
they will be freed before nightfall," Castro snapped at the
Cuban-American journalist who asked the question.
And if that was not enough, that same week the Rolling Stones, whose
brand of rock 'n' roll was once banned by Fidel Castro, staged a free
concert in Havana for an estimated one million people.
Then came a parade of visits by presidents and prime ministers from
Canada, Japan, Portugal, Iran and Vietnam; celebrities like Madonna,
designer Karl Lagerfeld and the cast of the latest "Fast and Furious"
movie; and nearly 500,000 U.S. residents who arrived aboard newly
established commercial flights and cruises.
Raúl Castro made an official visit to France in January and scored
another important point in December with a new agreement with the
European Union on political cooperation and dialogue. The agreement
eliminated the EU's "common position" — which linked relations to Cuba's
human rights record — and required nothing from Cuba.
But all the glamorous events and diplomatic victories did not slow the
sharp decline of the economy or the colossal exodus of Cubans to other
The VII Congress of the Cuban Communist Party in April disappointed many
Cubans when it failed to deepen or expand the economic reforms pushed by
Raúl Castro. It had been expected to also lay the groundwork for
legalizing small and medium-sized enterprises by no later than 2030. But
it also made it clear that Castro, who has said that he would step down
as president in 2018, will stay on as head of the Communist Party to
oversee the transition to a successor — if his health permits.
During the second half of the year, Cuba's liquidity problems, cuts in
oil deliveries from Venezuela and the start of payments on the massive
debt owed to the Paris Club forced the government to impose quotas on
gasoline and electricity and stop its payments to some of its suppliers.
Food shortages increased — in part because of increased demand from
tourists — and so did the shortages of medicines.
The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a U.N.
regional body that uses figures provided by the Cuban government,
reported that the island's economy would grow by a miniscule four-tenths
of 1 percent this year. Some independent analysts estimate the growth
will be zero or less.
Nevertheless, and despite pleas from the White House, the Castro
government did not give the green light to many of the U.S. companies
that wanted to do business on the island — apparently hoping to receive
even more concessions from Obama, who made warming relations with Cuba a
central part of his legacy. Like almost everyone else, it did not count
on the surprise outcome of the U.S. presidential election in November.
Facing a plunging economy, as well as increasingly worrisome questions
about the future of the Cuban Adjustment Act, 50,842 Cubans without
visas entered the United States from Oct. 1, 2015, until the end of
August, according to figures compiled by el Nuevo Herald.
The most dramatic images were of the thousands of Cuban migrants
stranded in various countries — nearly 8,000 in Costa Rica, 4,000 in
Panama and 2,000 in Colombia — as they tried to move along the long land
route from Ecuador to the Mexican border with the United States. The
exodus sparked humanitarian and diplomatic crises, as well as criticisms
of U.S. immigration policies by Central American governments.
The U.S. government did not change its migration policies on Cubans but
did contribute to the maintenance and transportation of some of the
stranded migrants and discreetly urged Latin American governments to
tighten their own migration controls and deport Cubans to the island.
Human rights abuses
The thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations also did not stop the repression against
opposition and human rights activists, and many of them publicly aired
their frustrations with Obama's policies on Cuba. Opposition activist
Guillermo Fariñas spent more than 50 days on a protest fast to demand an
end to the repression and the start of political negotiations. The Cuban
Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation counted 9,484
arbitrary arrests for political motives in the first 11 months of 2016 —
the highest number in the last seven years.
Security measures were tightened after Fidel Castro's death, and
graffiti artist Danilo "El Sexto" Maldonado was arrested when he painted
Se Fue — He's Gone — on a central Havana wall. Maldonado was still in
prison as of the writing of this report.
The victory of President-elect Donald Trump, who has said that he would
negotiate a better deal with Cuba or revert all of Obama's gestures
toward Cuba, added to the uncertainty at year's end.
2017 promises to be a crucial year for Cuba.
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Source: Cuba went through an epic 2016 | Miami Herald -