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A free Cuba should not pay 'repugnant' debts

Castroism is a machine of destruction and impoverishment. Any financing granted it has helped to prolong its existence, which has been a scourge.

La Habana
Graffiti on a street in Havana.
Graffiti on a street in Havana. Diario de Cuba

In 2011, China forgave Cuba $6 billion in debt; in 2013, Mexico exempted it from paying $487 million; in 2014, Russia did the same with $35 billion; and in 2015 the Paris Club waived $8.5 billion out of the $11.1 billion the island nation owed.

Even after all this leniency, in 2017 in its last official foreign debt report the Cuban government acknowledged that it still owed 17.8 billion dollars to foreign entities, an amount that, with all certainty, has only risen in recent years, in part due to new loans, and in part due to the accumulation of interest and unpaid principal.

Thus far we have spoken of "Cuba's debt" because this is how the issue is usually approached, but perhaps too lightly, because the question arises: is it Cuba (an abstract term that encompasses its population) that owes this money, or its government?

In a country where, through more or less effective mechanisms, accepted by a qualified majority, the people choose their representatives, it would not be possible to differentiate, in the face of financial commitments, between a nation and its government, but what happens when the "representatives" impose their will and act without the citizens' consent?

Coincidentally, it is in this area where Cuba made its first and only contribution to the world's technical-economic jargon. Back in 1898, when the US government took control of the island, it inherited the foreign debt left by the Spanish authorities.

The Cuban people, unofficially represented by Horatio Rubens and Gonzalo de Quesada, demanded that the Yankees not assume those financial obligations, arguing that they had been contracted without the people’s consent. That commitment was popularly called "repugnant debt," a term then accepted and used by international academics in the field of Economics.

Unfortunately, the catchy made-in-Cuba term "repugnant" is now in disuse, supplanted by the affected "odious debt" to designate those theoretically national commitments made by dictators and satraps in collaboration with seriously complicit and somewhat naive foreign institutions and businesspeople.

But the question goes beyond the adjectives used to describe these debts. In order to show that those who finance dictatorships will not be able to collect when they fall, and thus hinder these despicable governments' access to credit, the Nobel Laureate in Economics Michael Kremer —probably the greatest theoretician in this field— proposed the creation of an international body that would dictate which governments were "repugnant" so that the debts they contracted would be automatically cancelled when the regime changed. Such a body has not materialized, but it is an idea that the Cuban opposition should seriously consider.

It is also important to keep in mind that, in order for a debt to be considered ″repugnant,″ it is not enough for a tyrant to incur it, as even they can make socially fruitful investments. It must, therefore, be demonstrated that it was used against the citizens' interests.

Thus, in order for some or all of a national foreign debt to be declared "repugnant," it would not suffice to prove before an international court that Castroism was tyrannical. It would also be necessary to prove that the debt it contracted was used to the detriment of Cubans.

Although this would entail a legal basis that exceeds the scope of this article, this could involve proving that Castroism was a machine of destruction and impoverishment ― which should not be very difficult. Thus, it could be argued that any financing granted to Castroism helped to sustain its existence, which was a scourge, and harmful to the country′s citizens.

In any case, repugnant debts do not always disappear. As far back as 1917, the Russian jurist Aleksandr Naumovich stated that "if a despotic power incurs debt not for the needs or interests of the State, but to strengthen its despotic regime, to repress the population facing it, etc., this debt is odious for the population of the entire State. This debt is not an obligation for the nation; it is a debt of the regime, a personal debt of the power that has incurred it."

Debt remaining after regime change in Cuba could, then, very well fall on those who represented and benefited directly from the dictatorship. Thus, those foreigners who are lining their pockets off the sleepy communist island, with its cheap and docile labor, while sharing yachts and rounds of golf with the higher-ups of its Communist Party, tomorrow will have to turn to those same comrades, and only them, if they want to collect on their investments. Free Cuba will not pay repugnant debts!

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