Cuba wants to recover its heritage and become part of globalization trends and benefits while clinging to its unsuccessful revolution culture.
The 1,200 km long island also known as “The key of the gulf” because of its excellent geographic location is part of the Greater Antilles formed by thousands of small islands and keys.
Although Cuba is within about 100 miles of Florida, Cancun and the Bahamas, most of its 13 million inhabitants have never left the island and live in a world of their own, in a society that is very, very distant from that of its neighbors.
Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, in power for the last 57 years, have managed to hypnotize the population and ran the longest modern dictatorship in record worldwide.
While in Cuba, a foreign visitor quickly observes and learns that the 1956-59 revolution and overthrow of the last democratically elected President (Fulgencio Batista), turned oppressor, has resulted in even worse conditions for Cubans whose quality of life is frankly miserable.
For the most part, time stopped in the island after Ernest Hemingway left when Comrade Castro took over. Today, one can still admire the colonial and neoclassical architecture badly battered by years of tropical weather; the building facades cry out loud for a charity of maintenance.
Those old American automobiles that still roll on the streets are monuments of mechanical ingenuity in a country where spare parts are not available. Many are kept in vintage form to please post-cards and tourists. How ironic, though, it is that a long-term enemy of the U.S. keeps the largest museum of classic American cars. And the museum is not static; the units roll on the streets.
The population struggles to get food and to pay for the most expensive and deficient cellular service in the world.
The government, of course, blames the U.S. embargo for all of the Cubans’ maladies and takes pride and credit for the few good things.
Those that accomplish world class competitiveness such as athletes, ballet dancers, doctors, scientists and engineers in Cuba enjoy living and traveling privileges not available to the common citizen.
Primary and middle school are free and compulsory. High school and college are also free for those who qualify. Once they start working, graduates have to repay the government for their education.
Those fortunate to have skills may work outside the country under strict emigration rules, foreign employers must have a contract with the government and pay directly a portion of the salary to the Cuban revenue service.
And above salsa, beaches and an endless summer, the best thing in Cuba is security. In spite of the poverty: thefts, homicides, kidnappings and other crimes are practically inexistent in Cuba. A policy of zero tolerance and extreme punishment against crime has certainly been effective.
But this same policy serves to chastise those that may confront the government or become defectors.
Undeniably, the best and most effective government is a “good faith dictatorship”, such as the one in Malaysia, but this is not the case of Cuba.
Glimpses of hope
Since Russia withdrew troops, favorable trade and financial support to Cuba in 1991, Cuba’s government decided to open its doors to world tourism to generate some income. This program has been relatively successful as 3,000,000 tourists flock the island annually, but it hardly pays the bills of all Cubans; 120,000 are estimated to have direct tourism jobs and tourist related income accounts for about 12% of Cuba’s GDP.
Approximately a third of the visitors come from Canada, but everybody knows that the real large potential tourism market for Cuba is the U.S. whose citizens have for years been forbidden to travel to the island as part of the embargo.
But recently, as has been widely publicized, President Obama, in one of his establishment breaking initiatives and in a mood of, as he said “to stop living in the past”, removed Cuba from the U.S. terrorist list of countries and has relaxed the restriction for its citizens to visit the island.
This of course includes those of Cuban ancestry living in America, but it is still undefined if Cuban defectors with a U.S. passport will be allowed back in without a vengeance.
The government of Brazil has recently invested about US$700 million out of the estimated total cost of US$1 billion for the Port of Mariel 180 square-miles special economic zone which includes the reconditioning of the port itself and the construction of a container intermodal terminal.
The port is 30 miles west of Havana and can potentially store about 800,000 containers. The facility is expected to be a hub for the region and gain importance when the Panama Canal expansion is finished (early 2016).
A free-trade zone will operate in the port to host energy, manufacturing and logistics projects with Brazil having the upper hand. But China and Singapore are already jockeying for position.
Brazil, a long-term friend of Cuba, wants to become Cuba’s #1 partner (over Venezuela) and build a stronghold location for less expensive maritime shipments and potentially manufacture for export to the U.S. and other markets in Latin America and Europe.
But many things need resolutions, such as the handling of labor through government contracts, the cost of utilities, the construction of additional infrastructure, the availability of telecom and connectivity services and the general international trade rules.
But with Obama weighing in to possibly lift the embargo, Brazil’s and Cuba’s odds for success in this project increased significantly.
Reportedly, U.S. and Cuban authorities have been meeting secretly for over a year to discuss bilateral developments. It appears, though, that steps may be taken to relieve the embargo that among other things has precluded US goods, citizens, technology and air & sea transportation vessels to reach Cuban soil.
It may be that with the future passing of Fidel Castro (89), in order for him to save face while alive and hold to his socialist policy, the embargo might be finally lifted albeit in small steps.
But what is the eventual payback from Cuba for a full embargo relief? A truly democratic and free election for the top spot in government?
Not so fast. For now, in spite of some openings in the Cuban economy, President Raul Castro has insisted that the basic socialist principles of the country will remain intact.
Time will tell, but the forces and benefits of capitalistic free markets, even if shrouded in “special economic zones”, are just too strong to resist. Ask China.
And yes, eventually Cuba will compete with Mexico for foreign direct investment, manufacturing, trade and the whole menu of globalization activities.