US-Cuba relations still precarious despite deal
Published on the 14 February
EVEN as Americans look forward to buying Cohibas with their Amex cards,
US intransigence continues to crush Cuba, writes Brian Wilson
ON THE drive in from Jose Marti airport to downtown Havana, my driver
observes that it’s cooler than usual due to a cold wind blowing down
from the United States.
At any other point in the past 50-odd years, he might have been talking
in political metaphor. Now the comment is purely climatic. There is a
very long way to go but the first breezes of liberalisation in US policy
towards Cuba are beginning to be felt though it takes a seasoned visitor
to discern the practical impacts.
Last week, for example, US visitors to Cuba were able to take cigars
home with them legally for the first time since the economic blockade
was introduced in 1962. The evening before the blockade came into force,
John F Kennedy sent his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, round
Washington to buy up 1,200 of his favourite Petit Upmanns – an act of
hypocrisy which Fidel Castro was still recounting half a century later.
As part of President Barack Obama’s raising of travel restrictions, US
citizens can leave with up to $400 worth of goods including $100 in
tobacco and alcohol. It is a cautious first step which is hardly going
to transform the Cuban economy. But after so long, it is at least a step
in the direction of common sense and normalisation.
Within another couple of weeks, the departing Americans should be able
to pay for these souvenirs using their credit cards, as the US banking
embargo is lifted on individuals, though not yet on businesses. Using
American Express to buy Cohiba cigars in Havana begins to conjure up a
little bit of symbolism which suggests change is really starting to happen.
Incidentally, British banks are still slavishly following the American
line while their counterparts in other EU countries are not. A friend
who has business dealings with Cuba but keeps his personal account
entirely separate has just been told by a leading British bank that he
will have to close it after 35 years, because of his Cuban involvement.
Presumably when the Americans say it’s OK to jump, our own banks will
Havana’s hotels are already bursting at the seams and, as has been the
case for several years, many of the occupants are from the United
States. It is a bit of a myth that Americans cannot visit Cuba as the
accents in the hotel lobbies confirm. Travel is allowed by Washington so
long as it is under headings like family ties, educational, religious or
President Obama’s initial measures expand the number of exempt headings
while leaving in place the general travel ban – part of the battery of
embargo legislation that would require Congressional approval to repeal.
All the American airlines are now discussing the reintroduction of
scheduled services and the first such flights between New York and
Havana are due to start next month. The number of American visitors
should double this year to over a million.
The flourishing tourism business is abetted by a widespread desire to
“get there before it changes”. In truth, there is not a lot of need to
rush. This is going to be a long, slow process and the scale of
investment required to make a real difference to the Cuban economy and
infrastructure is not going to happen any time soon.
When it does, it will be at a pace dictated by the Cubans and not at the
behest of Washington alone. The Cuban government welcomes the mood of
détente but has absolutely no intention of being passive in the process.
Cuba has survived for a long time in the face of Washington’s
vindictiveness and the desire for a sensible relationship does not mean
that it will open the economic or political floodgates.
This is already being made clear at many levels. For example, the
decision by Obama to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba is not
without its complications and conditions from the Havana end. Absurdly,
Cuba is still on a US State Department list of “state sponsors of
terrorism” along with North Korea and Iran. This is the rationale that
underpins many of the financial sanctions which Washington imposes.
Obama has asked John Kerry to review Cuba’s presence on that list and he
is universally expected to recommend its removal within the next few
months. Meanwhile, the Cubans – who find this “terror state” designation
deeply offensive – may tell Washington that diplomatic relations can
wait until then. The appointment of an ambassador will then be subject
to Congressional approval and that is where much of the political
grandstanding in Washington will be focused.
Discussions around all of these tricky issues are going on behind the
scenes and there is a will on both sides to find ways of addressing them
without stalling the momentum for change. The language used by
Washington is very important. As far as the Cubans are concerned, this
is about ending an illegal blockade which has crippled their economy and
imposed great hardships upon their people. It is not about the internal
affairs of Cuba.
The more the Obama administration tries to appease hard-line domestic
critics by suggesting otherwise, the greater the determination of the
Cubans to stick strictly to protocol. Yet neither side wants this
opportunity to founder on the rocks of rhetoric or ideology. There is an
acute awareness that Obama has less than two years left in office and
any change not made irreversible within that timescale could fall victim
to the veto or disinterest of a future president, particularly a
That said, party divisions within Congress are by no means clear cut. In
the last 20 years, there have been Republican governors and senators,
particularly from the wheat states, around town, desperate for access to
a market on their doorstep. The US is already the second biggest
exporter of food to Cuba, under various dispensations, but there are
many American interests with a vested interest in normalising
The fact that Cuba imports around 80 per cent of its food, at a
crippling cost to its economy, is a bleak reminder of how effective half
a century of economic attrition can be. For 30 of these years, Cuba was
sheltered from the storm by an alliance of necessity, far more than of
ideology, with the Soviet Union. When that disappeared overnight, Cuba
faced its most desperate period from which it has slowly recovered with
help from tourism, the high price of nickel and its oil-for-doctors and
teachers deal with Venezuela.
None of that has prevented the decline of investment-starved
infrastructure and agriculture. Cuba was once the world’s biggest sugar
producers at eight million tonnes a year. That figure fell to barely a
million tonnes and is rising slowly. Cuba could again be an exporter of
food to the region. But vast acreages have fallen into disuse because
the blockade ensures there is little money to invest in the equipment
and technology the soil cries out for.
Economic reforms introduced by Raoul Castro have created tens of
thousands of small businesses. There is a real sense of what could be
achieved in more normal circumstances. But the fundamental challenges
cannot be addressed until it is possible for investment to take place on
a scale that remains unattainable until the blockade is lifted. And
that decision remains in the hands of the US Congress.
Indeed, there has been a paradoxical effect of moves towards
liberalisation. The closer it is perceived to be, the greater the
American vested interest in making life difficult for others who want to
get there first. Therefore, particularly via the banking system and with
the help of compliant governments, they continue to bully anyone with
any trace of American economic involvement into not doing business with
The incremental changes now going on, and momentum within the United
States itself, may eventually prevail. For the time being, the
counter-productive cruelty of the American blockade can only be nibbled
at and not erased. There are very few Americans in these hotel lobbies
who would dissent from the view that Obama is on the right track but
also that Congress should respond by abandoning the whole apparatus of
As the waves break over the Malecon, the great boulevard along Havana’s
seafront which is now a Unesco World Heritage site, they might also
recall at this critical moment in American policy-making that if it had
not been for the revolution, the whole lot was due to be demolished to
make way for a ghastly vision which was then transferred instead to the
Nevada desert and named Las Vegas.
That is a living reminder of why Cuba will never offer an open door to
the Americans – as opposed to the civilised relationship built on mutual
respect which President Obama has pointed the way towards but cannot
• Former Labour minister Brian Wilson is chairman of Havana Energy, a
company promoting renewable energy in Cuba
Source: US-Cuba relations still precarious despite deal – The Scotsman –