Ó n orts i R vovv r
The U. S. president’s mission to Cuba, which has spun itself into a hurricane of diplomatic and cultural expectations, is due ashore on March 21. Barack and Michelle Obama will tour Old Havana’s cobblestone alleys, meet with revolutionaries and anti-revolutionaries, and possibly go as far as shaking the hand of an ancient, trembling, and all-powerful king.
That would be Mick Jagger, who is scheduled to perform at an outdoor concert with the band known as Los Rolling in the official Cuban media. Half a million fans are expected. The first American presidential visit to Cuba in 80 years will also include nine innings of baseball diplomacy, as the Tampa Bay Rays play the Cuban national team in the first exhibition game in 16 years.
For the U.S., the trade and economic benefits of Obama’s attempt to normalize relations with the island are obvious: Cuba was once a major importer of American farm and industrial products, linked to the economies of New Orleans and Tampa by ferry, and flooded with state-of-the-art Buick Straight Eights, circa 1952. Obama has carved out exceptions to the 55-year embargo—including, on March 15, allowing U. S. citizens to visit Cuba individually, instead of in groups, and giving Cuba access to the international banking system. But only Congress can lift the
e whole thing.
Raúl Castro, o, 84, now the island’s president and more pragmaticpragm aticatic tha than his retired brother Fidél, 89, r recognizesecognizes thatth Cuba must createate ate millionssmillion of jobs for its restive young people andnd can’t affff afford fford to pay for that itself. He’ll probablybablly ask Obama for billions of dollars in investvest est- ment and an end to the embargo.
Despite the hoopla, little has happened to expand commerce since Dec. 17, 2014, when Obama announced that the U. S. was reestablishingg tiesies with Cuba. The road ahead will test how intransigent Cuba’s monopoly oly state enterprises are in the face of change. (The Ministry of Labor still keeps an official list of who’s allowed to workrk as a birthday clown.) Inertia and socialist cialist doctrine continue to support a closed economy. The entire point of the Cuban Revolution was to keep America out. Pivoting the island from central planning and state monopolies to an openpen economy engaged with the U. S. won’t on’t be easy.
When Obama revealed his secretret negotiations, he said that “increased commerce is good for Americans and for Cubans” and specifically urged telecom companies “to sell goods that enable Cubans to communicate with the United States and other countries.” The White House cited tourism, shipping, and app development as areas where U.S. companies were now free to seek deals.
There have been more than 500 trade missions in the subsequent 15 months, with little to show for the effort. “There are no success stories,” says John Kavulich of the U. S.- Cuba Trade and Economic Council, a nonpartisan business-focused nonprofit in New York. One U.S. company—two men from Alabama—did sign a deal to assemble at the port of Mariel small tractors specially designed for Cuban cooperative farmers.
Cuba is playing the field, negotiating with American telecom executives on a trade visit, then buying the equipment cheaply from China. Cuba asked for bids from U. S. companies on rewiring the tourist-centric zone of Old Havana. It then hired a Chinese company. And it’s not just China, already a trade partner, that Havana has turned to. When U.S. tourism companies came calling, the European Union offered hundreds of millions of dollars in debt relief in exchange for renewing its deals running local resorts.