Cuba is an island, but…

Though in many respects isolated, Cuba is like most countries–especially small ones–in depending for its fate on the rest of the world.  It was once a Soviet satellite that agreed to host nuclear weapons targeted against the US and tried to export its revolution throughout Latin America (including Puerto Rico) and to Africa, where they say 2400 Cubans died in what they consider liberation wars.  Judging from my visit to Havana last week, Cuba is now more interested in its relationship with Venezuela and the United States, the two most important sources of its vital hard currency.

The relationship with Venezuela echoes Cuba’s revolutionary past.  The Castros shared with Hugo Chaves, whose face still graces more than one wall in Havana, a belief in social revolution and a “Bolivarian” alternative to capitalism.  Caracas still helps to keep Cuba financially afloat with subsidized oil supplies, payments for Cuban doctors, and other less transparent transfers.  Cubans understand this reliance on cash-strapped Venezuela is likely coming to an end.  That generates at least part of their sense of urgency about economic reform.

The relationship with the United States is far more fraught.  Opposite my favorite Cuban jazz bar in Obispo stands a Western Union office, where Cubans line up to get transfers from relatives in the US and elsewhere.  Like this young woman in American flag tights:

Waiting for your remittance
Waiting for your remittance

The sign in the window shows Fidel and Raul under the heading

The Revolution, thriving and victorious, goes forward.

Pardon the poor photography:

The Castro brothers grace a Western Union office
The Castro brothers grace a Western Union office

It doesn’t get a lot more ironic than that:  powered by US dollars sent from Miami.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  The original idea of the American embargo, which the Cubans call a blockade, was to starve the regime of the resources it needed to survive, causing collapse of the Castro regime.  Various presidents have tightened and loosened the embargo, depending not only on what is going on in Cuba but also on American politics.  Even in its current relatively loose form, the embargo certainly hurts the Cuban economy.  Because of US legislation restricting access to ports and banks by non-American (as well as American) companies that do business in Cuba, many cruise and cargo ships don’t call at Cuban ports and many companies don’t officially transact business with Cuba.

Cubans are resourceful though and one way or another manage to get access to most of the US equipment they need, including Apple computers and sophisticated sound boards for their recording studios.  It is expensive and difficult, but possible.  Along the way, a good deal of illicit money presumably changes hands.

The question is what purpose this serves.  Most Americans, and most Cuban Americans (even in Florida), believe the policy should change.  It is an older generation of members of Congress who keep the embargo in place.  It is unclear to me at this point what Cuba would have to do to get it removed, though I suppose the issue of property claims is close to the top of the list.

A US Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has certified 5911 claims worth $6.4 to $20.1 billion, depending on whether you compound the interest or not.  Even if he has lived rent-free, I can only imagine how a Cuban who has lived 55 years under the Castro regime will feel when a foreign claimant arrives to take possession of her house.  Or how the successor regime will feel about digging into its empty pockets to compensate the claimants, plus 6% interest accumulated over 41 years (I don’t know why 41).

What the embargo has not done is cause the collapse of the regime.  Quite to the contrary, the Castros seem to revel in isolation and hostility, which helps them to claim a legitimate role as defenders of Cuba’s independence.  One loyalist told me that in the end the Revolution is mostly about “dignity,” which he associated with Cuba’s ability to make its own way in the world, and “respect,” which he associated with pride in its uniqueness.  This should sound familiar to those who have been following the Arab uprisings.  Vague as they are, these sentiments are not to be trifled with.

But dignity and respect won’t go far without a stronger economy, which is where I started this series of posts on Cuba.  What the Cubans want from the United States above all is more tourism, which will depend I imagine on building far better hotels.  The shabbiness and poor management of the once fashionable Plaza, where we stayed at a cost of about $150 per night, is almost unbelievable, even for someone who travels as much as I do in poor countries and conflict zones.

Increased tourism will also depend on simplifying the process for going there.  This is a Washington issue, not a Havana problem.  At least for those on group tours, the Cubans issue tourist cards easily and require you to fill out a simple health form. Procedures at passport control both entering and leaving were not onerous (certainly not as onerous as some instances non-American friends recount about entering the US).  There are charter flights, including some operated by American Airlines, non-stop from Miami (and Tampa) to Havana.  Based on the experience of my fellow travelers, those are far more reliable and no more expensive than flying from Cancun (avoid Cubana!).

It’s the US government that requires you to read complicated licensing rules and threatens you with exorbitant fines if you violate their less than clear provisions.  More than one Cuban asked who we think we are punishing.  They have a point, especially as the tourist industry is the leading edge of capitalism in Cuba.

The Cubans would also like the US to use the monster container port they have built at Mariel, once the jumping-off point for so many Cubans to leave the island because it is so close to Florida.  The odds of that seem low at this point, but importing goods into the US from Cuba would somehow be a fitting end to an embargo whose logic and purpose seem lost.

The United States is no more an island than Cuba when it comes to interacting with its neighborhood.  Cuba will be a major issue for us as it transitions, if only because of geography, family ties and property claims.  We need to be thinking now about how to help enable post-Castro Cuba to achieve a dignified and respectful outcome for the island’s more than 11 million inhabitants.

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