U.S. airlines don’t have regularly scheduled flights to Cuba—and probably won’t anytime soon. A civil aviation agreement in February has already stumbled over reciprocity: Allowing Cuba’s aging, unsafe airliners into U.S. airports is problematic, especially since many are flown by Cuban air force pilots. And that licensed, authorized, widely reported done deal for a ferry to the island from Key West? Not happening. Carnival Cruise Line signed a memorandum with Cuba, outfitted and staffed a 704-passenger ship, and hinted that it could make Cuba the center of its entire Caribbean operations. The Cubans have stalled by not forming a corporate partner, have demanded from Carnival massive investments in their ports, and let deadlines for the first sailings float away.
From the Obamas’ arrival to the Stones’ departure, the capitalist invasion will likely produce a raft of new deals, signed declarations, and promises. Nothing will move quickly, however. “They’re dragging their feet partly because they feel it’s putting pressureureure on the U. S. to lift the embargo,” says ays Timothyt Ashby, an attorney and formerrme deputy assistant secretary of hemisphericmis affairs who’s negotiated with the Cubans recently for several U. S. corporations.
But the Cubans will come around at the last minute, Ashby believes, because the best partner they could ask for is leaving office in 10 months. “What Cuba wants is large-scale direct investment,” he says. They need billions of dollars just to rebuild the port of Havana and want access to the World Bank for major infrastructure projects across the island. They want big American hotel companies to operate and invest in Cuba. “They’re keen on branded,” Ashby says. “They want Marriott and American Airlines.”
The Cuban leadership, under Raúl Castro’s direction, appears to be looking for a way it can attract U. S. and foreign investment and still keep its brand of socialism—probably borrowing Vietnamese-style private capitalism and strict political control. Kavulich says Raúl will surrender as little as possible but will ultimately have to change the country to survive.
For now, economic reforms on the island allow small businesses—repairmen and restaurants, for example—to exist. That’s not going to be enough to help the millions of Cubans who remain essentially unemployed. Cuban Americans have been pouring money into the island, investing in their cousins, and Kavulich estimates that Raúl will push the majority of workers into the private sector within a few years. That transition will be more efficiently done with American business involvement than without.
Normalizing relations with Cuba was never predicated on “we do X, you do Y,” says Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser who led the Americans in the secret talks that resulted first in reopening embassies, then to changes in parts of the U.S. trade embargo, and now to the chance for a presidential drop-by at the legendary El Floridita bar for a daiquiri. In an interview marking the December anniversary of Obama’s announcement, Rhodes spelled out the president’s policy in greater detail. The American goal is to effect “greater engagement between the Cuban people, the U.S., and the rest of the world, greater commercial activity that improves lives, empowered by more information. By definition, over time that is going to have an effect in terms of the state of democracy in Cuba.”
As the Castro regime tries to figure out the spe speed and depth of reform and engageme engagement with its huge capitalist neighbor, t the U. S. government can do little thingsthing to encourage trade, such as approve imports of Cuban cigars, coffffee, coffee, trop tropical fruits, and agricultural products. S So far, little of that has been done. “Nor “Normalization connotes bilateral trade,”trade,” says Robert Muse, an attorney who’s lobbied for Cuban brands. “Where are the U. S. rule changes to permit imports from Cuba?” There may be one harbinger: the surprise decision by th the Treasury Department to grant a licens license to import Havana Club rum, which my research has affirmed to be of peer peerless quality.
Un Until Congress lifts the entire emba embargo, modest commercial steps may be theth most effective way that trade can hel help bring about change in Cuba. Fidel Ca Castro famously said that history will ab absolve him; if given the chance, capit talism may dissolve him. A Cuban loyalist and former revolutionary fighter told me back in 1991, “The day the embargo ends, we are done for.” <BW>