Harvey Mackay: Cuba: Poised for rebirth?
The 1986 measures taken against South Africa surely hastened the end of apartheid. In most other cases, embargoes are a blunder. Take Cuba: We started imposing sanctions against Cuba a half century ago. Where have they gotten us?
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has put a number to the impact. It cites estimates that the embargo sacrifices $1.2 billion in U.S. exports and revenues annually. That’s nearly twice the cost suffered by Cuba, experts contend. George Shultz, secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, said in 2009, “With the Cold War behind us, we should simply remove the embargo on Cuba.”
I just returned from my most recent visit to Cuba, having now been there a half-dozen times. This visit convinced me that there will be a tremendous change in Cuba in the next five years. No one will recognize it from the paternalistic, cradle-to-grave operation that country has been since 1959. That’s when Fidel Castro took power.
In 1976, I led a 21-person trade delegation to Havana for five days. Our goal was to negotiate future trade with Castro. That’s also when I learned that he spoke perfect English – after I struck up a conversation with him about his passion for bowling.
When Fidel checks out, Father Time will be the likely culprit. After all, El Comandante has survived countless assassination attempts and is 85. Meanwhile his younger brother – the modest and pragmatic Raul – is really the helmsman. As to speechifying, Raul is the short-winded sort, something his brother has never been. Fidel recently summoned 60 world leaders and harangued them for four hours. His wife made him rest for an hour, but then the octogenarian came back and pitched for another four.
Raul, president of the Council of State of Cuba since 2008, is a savvy problem-solver. Smoothly, and under the radar, Raul has been dismantling Fidel’s classical communist agenda:
• He’s released a hundred political prisoners.
• He doesn’t assail the U.S. as the root of all Cuba’s problems.
• He has organized grassroots feedback organizations for himself.
• One hundred seventy-eight categories of activity are now licensed for private-sector development and entrepreneurship.
• In the next five years, 40 percent of the economy will be privatized.
• Education is revered, and the population is remarkably well-schooled.
• And tourism has displaced sugar as the single most important force in the economy.
Compared with Jamaica, Haiti, El Salvador and Honduras, Cuba is a jewel for the average citizen. The government pays all basic living expenses. With great medical care, its life expectancy rivals that of the United States.
Life is still no day at the beach for the 11 million people of Cuba. Raul is reputed to be as brutal as he is tough. Officials still get fired for dissing the government, which happened to two of them recently. Discretionary spending is a fantasy. The average Cuban’s income is a paltry $20 per month because the essentials basically are provided.
With some of the richest soil in the world, Cuba stunningly imports 80 percent of its food. When the spigot of Soviet aid was stilled as the 1990s began, a $5 billion lifeline disappeared. Raised with a guaranteed lifetime job script, the new directive quickly became: If you want to live, you have to work! Getting to work is a daily trauma for many on an island outfitted with pre-Revolution 1950s American autos.
Freedom is stifled everywhere. While many Cuban kids have a Facebook page, Internet access is restricted. Cubans hunger for the Internet and travel freedoms we take as givens. They also know a great deal about America. While bewildered by some of our political quirks, their affection for us Yanks is remarkably high.
With the embargo in place, Cuban importing is a do-it-yourself proposition. Our group of 35 CEOs and spouses saw an unforgettable sight at the Miami airport: a six-block-line of Cuba-bound travelers standing four abreast with shrink-wrapped goods for their relatives and friends. Their parcels included food, medicine, clothing, blankets – and even a washing machine!
Despite sanctions, a half-million Cuban-Americans fly to their ethnic homeland annually. Speculation about a possible oil bonanza in Cuba might cause us to look at the embargo differently. It might take something that dramatic for sanctions to end and for U.S. cruise ships to dock in Havana Harbor. Meanwhile, one wonders if Washington realizes who is paying the real price.
Harvey Mackay is a Minneapolis businessman and author. He also spends about six weeks a year in Aspen.
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