Underlying Cuba’s desire for normalization with the U.S. and its ability to achieve this goal are two realities that do not receive the attention they deserve. First, Cuba has a rapidly aging and declining population. Second, Cuba has very little cash to purchase goods and services in international markets. Both of these adversely affect Cuba’s desire and ability to achieve normalization.
Aging and Declining Cuban Population
Cuba already has the oldest population in all of Latin America. Experts predict that 50 years from now, its population will have fallen by a third and more than 40 percent of the country will be older than 60.
This is a demographic crisis with both economic and political consequences. The aging population will require a vast health care system, the likes of which the state cannot afford. And without a viable work force, the cycle of flight and wariness about Cuba’s future is even harder to break, despite the country’s halting steps to open itself up to the outside world.
“We are all so excited about the trade and travel that we have overlooked the demographics problem,” said Hazel Denton, a former World Bank economist who has studied Cuban demographics. “This is a significant issue.”
Young people are fleeing the island in big numbers, fearful that normalization of relations with the U.S. will lead to the end of a policy that allows Cubans who make it to the U.S. to become naturalized U.S. citizens.
Over the past two years, an estimated 100,000 Cubans have streamed into the U.S., legally and illegally. Most of them fly to another country in Latin America and then make treacherous journeys by land to the U.S. border with Mexico. Thousands of others obtain family reunification visas and travel directly to the U.S. Those without money or helpful relatives flee Cuba on rafts.
The surge began in 2013 after the Cuban government eliminated the need for exit permits, and got bigger after Washington and Havana announced plans in late 2014 to end 50 years of hostility and re-establish relations.
For the fiscal year that just ended on September 30, nearly 4,500 Cubans reached U.S. soil in rafts, were caught at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard or were otherwise thwarted while trying to flee.
The younger people remaining on the island are reluctant to have children, citing the strain of raising an infant in a country where the average state salary is just $20 a month. Scant job opportunities, a shortage of available goods and a dearth of sufficient housing have encouraged younger Cubans to wait to start a family, sometimes indefinitely. In addition, abortion is legal, free, without stigma and commonly practiced. Cuba’s reported birth rate is one of the lowest in the world while its abortion rate is one of the highest.
One possible response to this demographic challenge is for the Cuban government to encourage the vast Cuban expatriate population to come home. But such an effort, in my opinion, would have to be backed by realistic opportunities to thrive and succeed economically, and this does not appear likely in the near future at least.
Another facet of Cuba’s aging population is the dying of those who fought with Fidel and Ché in the Revolution of 1959. In short, “the revolution and its heroes are fading.” According to a journalist, “many younger Cubans feel the weight of the revolution as a challenge to their future rather than as its foundation.” They “have little patience for revolutionary rhetoric, and they are frustrated by the dearth of economic opportunity in the country, despite the diplomatic thaw with Washington. They want to see change in their lives, and revolutionary talk sounds to many like a distraction from their struggles.”
Cuba’s Financial Problems
Cuba is now finding it difficult to purchase goods and services from foreign suppliers. It has little cash to do so. This is resulting from low prices for nickel, which is one of its main exports; the economic crisis in Venezuela, which is one of Cuba’s major allies; and a Cuban drought. These adverse factors apparently are not offset by increased foreign tourism on the island after the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement. State companies are being forced to cut imports and to seek more liberal payment terms from foreign suppliers.
The financial arrangements with Venezuela are complicated. First, Cuba receives oil on favorable terms and refines and resells some of it in a joint venture with its socialist ally, but prices for refined products are down in tandem with crude prices. Second, Cuba sends medical professionals to Venezuela, but experts believe the amount paid to Cuba for their services is tied to oil prices, meaning Venezuela would pay less to Cuba when such prices are down.
Another sign of these economic challenges is Cuba’s recent agreement with Spain to restructure Cuba’s short-term debts. Spain forgave Cuba for its defaulted interest and principal; restructured the residual principal payments for a period of ten years; and granted a three-year grace period for repayment of principal. The total principal of this debt was 201.5 million Euros.
Earlier other countries also wrote off significant Cuban indebtedness: Russia, $32 billion in July 2014; Mexico, $487 million in December 2013; Japan, $1.4 billion in 2012; and China, $6 billion (restructuring) in 2010. Cuba’s debt problem with Japan, however, was not resolved after the 2012 agreement when Cuba failed to make payments thereunder, and this year the two countries are trying to resolve the debt issue as they seek to expand trade.
These two realities, in my opinion, help to explain why normalization is not producing immediate expansion of business between the U.S. and Cuba. Yes, the U.S. embargo, which is still in place, adversely affects Cuba’s foreign trade and should be ended by the U.S. as soon as possible. But ending the embargo does not directly affect these two realities that are major impediments to such trade.
Once again I invite comments of supplementation or correction, especially on Cuba’s foreign indebtedness.
 Ahmed, An Abundance of Love but a Lack of Babies, N.Y. Times (Oct. 27, 2015); Assoc. Press, Historic Surge in Cuban Emigration Divides Families, N.Y. Times (Nov. 6, 2015); Dominguez, What You Might Not Know About the Cuban Economy, Harv. Bus. Rev. (Aug. 15, 2015); CIA World Factbook: Cuba.
 Ahmed, Cuban Revolutionaries Hope Their Legacy Won’t Fade Away, N.Y. times (Nov. 7, 2015).
 Reuters, ‘There is no money:’ cash-strapped Cuba is forced to cut vital imports, Guardian (Oct. 16, 2015); Three million tourist arrivals: A target in sight, Granma (Nov. 11, 2015) (three million tourists by second week of November, more than 90 days earlier than 2014); Cruise ship tourism expanding in Cuba, Granma (Nov. 9, 2015) (20,000 cruise ship visitors to Cuba so far this year).
 Spain agreed with Cuba to refinance short-term debt of the island, El Pais (Nov. 3, 2015) This agreement may have resulted from a June 2015 Cuban agreement with the Paris Club of 16 wealthy nations, including Spain, that fixed Cuba’s total indebtedness to them at $15 billion (13.7 billion Euros) and that was seen as an important step towards renegotiating those debts. (Reuters, Cuba and Paris Club members agree on debt total of $15bln (June 8, 2015)
 Russia writes off 90% of Cuba’s debt ahead of Putin’s ‘big tour’ to Latin America, RT (July 12, 2014); Russia writes off $32bn Cuban debt in show of brotherly love, Guardian (July 10, 2014); Cuba; Mexico: 70% of Debt Forgiven, Global Legal Monitor (Nov. 8, 2013); Russia, Japan and others want to do business in Cuba, Internet in Cuba (May 4, 2015); Forte, Cuba and Japan expanding economic and trade ties, Granma (Nov. 9, 2015); Reuters, China restructures Cuban debt, backs reform (Dec. 23, 2010).
 E.g., Reuters, U.S. Companies Drawn to Cuba, Unsure if Profits Will Follow, N.Y. Times (Nov. 6, 2015).
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Comment: Information about Cubans Coming to U.S. Via Mexico
A recent El Pais article reports that 13,000 Cubans are expected to go to the U.S. this year through Mexico. Many arrive from Ecuador, which grants free visas to Cubans and which has an estimated population of 20,000 Cubans.
Ferri, More Cubans than ever en route to US, El Pais (Nov. 14, 2015), http://internacional.elpais.com/internacional/2015/11/14/mexico/1447457116_146597.html