WHAT COMES THEN?
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 Castros
already in his seventies. The embargos failed to drive him from power
anyway. Congressional support is eroding and the embargos 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, Havanas famed and beloved seaside boulevard built in 1901
during U.S. occupation would suddenly sprout McDonalds, Pizza Huts and Burger
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; theyve
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.
Youd 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, Cubas 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 dont 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, dont 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, therell surely be an avalanche of U.S. visitors. What theyll
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). Theyre 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, couldnt new rules permit
deals that allow limited restoration of properties sized in Castros 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 its all too much to
ask. But why, after decades of Washington-Havana enmity, couldnt we sensitively
assist a new Cuba redevelop protecting its special character and giving first
breaks to homegrown entrepreneurial growth?
It wouldnt, 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 wont happen unless we think hard about it before the embargo crumbles.