“If Chávez were to lose power, Cuba would be more adversely affected than any other country. The impact on the Cuban economy would be enormous,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “Cuba’s current leadership, no doubt aware of such an unhappy prospect, is trying to undertake economic reforms in part to offset such a blow.” This includes attempts at diversifying investors and creating a new class of entrepreneurs not dependent on the government’s payroll.
There are clear historical parallels for Cuba should Chávez fall. The so-called Special Period, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, saw Cuba left in chronic economic crisis as Havana was no longer able to offset the US embargo. The economy contracted 35 percent between 1989 and 1993, and oil imports decreased nearly 90 percent in that same period. The Cuban people were plunged into food shortages, some losing up to a quarter of their body weight.
"It was horrible," says one elderly man, walking along Havana’s seawall. He declined to provide any personal information because he feared retaliation from the state. "We had nothing, no food and no money but we survived.”
He blames the US embargo for Cuba’s isolation. Initiated in 1960, the embargo was designed to persuade Cuban authorities to move towards “democratization and greater respect for human rights,” however, the policy encourages this by limiting trade between Cuba and US companies. As a result, Cuba’s crumbling buildings and postcard-friendly old American cars have left the country looking like it is stuck in a time warp.