CUBA AFTER THE EMBARGO:
WHAT COMES THEN?

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NEAL PEIRCE COLUMN
For Release Sunday, January 6, 2002

© 2001 Washington Post Writers Group

By Neal R. Peirce

HAVANA -- Just assume the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba comes to an end. What then?

It could happen soon. Fidel Castro’s already in his seventies. The embargo’s failed to drive him from power anyway. Congressional support is eroding and the embargo’s super-advocate, Jesse Helms, retires this year.
And now critics can argue: With our forging of full U.S. trade ties with Communist China, 1.2 billion people 6,000 miles distant, why not the island nation of Cuba, 11 million people a bare 100 miles from Florida?
Our histories are deeply entangled. Indeed, without for a Spanish-English land swap in 1763, Cuba might be American territory while the Florida peninsula would still belong to Spain.

But what happens when the embargo does fall? How will the U.S. and Cuba interact economically? Will Yankee dollars be allowed to flow in, freely controlling land and enterprises?

In some peoples’ worst nightmares, the Malecon, Havana’s famed and beloved seaside boulevard built in 1901 during U.S. occupation would suddenly sprout McDonalds, Pizza Huts and Burger Kings.

Others fear gambling salons. Before Castro came to power, Mafia moguls held a summit in Havana, deciding to make the city a center of casinos and gamblers’ hotels. Meyer Lansky and George Raft made major casino investments. On January 1, 1959, the day Castro took power, the casino industry was destroyed, its equipment thrown in bonfires. Would an end to the embargo bring a flashback to the exploitive ‘50s?

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its big subsidies, Cuban socialism has put on a more liberal dress. Enterprises no longer wait for top-down orders from the state; they’ve begun to function more on their own. Some private restaurants and independent artisans are now tolerated. Especially productive workers can now be paid more. A dual economy has evolved. Most native Cubans are paid in pesos and earn the equivalent of just $12-$15 a month. Those working in the growing tourist industry, who often receive U.S. dollars from foreigners, are much better off.

You’d think all Cubans yearn for end end of the U.S. embargo. Not so. Some view the prospect with trepidation. One respected planner, fearing an avalanche of entertainment, gambling, and quick real estate deals, told a group of visiting Americans that Madonna might be a bigger threat today than a mission of invading Marines.
Right now, Cuba’s socialist state imposes so many restrictive rules that capitalism would likely have a slow takeoff. Europeans have been investing in new hotels, for example, but at a slow pace. Private property rights don’t exist. Foreigners are limited to minority ownership of enterprises. All outsiders-- even the U.S. Interests Section, our substitute for an embassy -- have to hire all workers through a single monopoly agency which even denies them the right to make layoffs in economic downturns.

Plus, don’t expect a strong work ethic or spiffy customer service levels in Cuba. Four decades of socialism have suppressed both.

Yet once the embargo and travel restrictions are lifted, there’ll surely be an avalanche of U.S. visitors. What they’ll find, amidst the decay, is an island of stirring natural beauty and remarkably preserved historic towns. A people of natural ebullience, great personal joy, soul-rooted musical rhythm.

Despite 42 years of U.S.-Castro acrimony, Cubans are anxious to meet and talk with Americans. They watch their words politically (Big Brother may be listening). They’re poor. On the other hand, the government has delivered impressive levels of basic education and health care.

Could there be a non-exploitive U.S.-Cuba relationship? U.S. support for an orderly transition to a free market economy, for example? Or perhaps support of a tourist economy that benefits small and neighborhood-based enterprises, not just foreign-held mega-hotels and resorts?

One can imagine restored towns with locally-owned stores instead of a wave of foreign-owned chains. Modest-scale retirement housing for foreigners instead of massive, walled-off communities. A Cuba of infinitely more value than the popular cigars-and-rum image.

Indeed, couldn’t new rules permit deals that allow limited restoration of properties sized in Castro’s revolution, but only when returning exiles agree to job-producing investments and restoring decayed but historically significant buildings?

Just maybe, such sensitive redevelopment could be combined with special focus on the crafts, arts, music -- and baseball -- which make Cuba such a vibrant and special place.

Probably it’s all too much to ask. But why, after decades of Washington-Havana enmity, couldn’t we sensitively assist a new Cuba redevelop protecting its special character and giving first breaks to homegrown entrepreneurial growth?

It wouldn’t, incidentally, have to be all tourist-related: foreign high tech firms will find in Cuba one of the best-educated workforces in Latin America.

Bottom line: We owe the people of our beleaguered island neighbor a far brighter future than either colonialism or socialism ever provided. But it won’t happen unless we think hard about it before the embargo crumbles.