Rob Panos (Acc. ’12) recently traveled to Cuba on an educational visa with Lexington Institute, a think tank based in Arlington, Virginia, to study small business and the country’s changing economy.
Cuba is not what you think. Yes, it is a communist state. Yes, the government denies many of the freedoms we take for granted. But Cuba is not static. From the rusting Chevrolets on the streets of Havana or the Spanish facades of the town plaza you would think you were in another decade, or another century altogether. There is limited internet access and most farmers still till their fields with horse and plow, but now is a time of dramatic change in Cuba. With the transition of power from Fidel to Raúl in 2008 the country is moving in a direction that many never imagined possible under the Castro family. Cubans can now buy and sell property, manage (certain) private businesses, and stay in hotels that were previously reserved for tourists.
The Cuban people suffered long and hard under the economic policies of the last decade but the government is finally recognizing the merits of a third road, one modeled on the socialist market economy of China. What’s even more promising is the buzz of our generation. Young people can hardly contain their excitement for new opportunities and the chance at a better life. The change is slow, calculated, and incremental, but it is change nonetheless. Many of the restaurants we visited during our trip illustrate the dichotomy between old and new. On the one hand are state-operated restaurants, and on the other are private operations. The former are slow and irritatingly conventional, while the latter are pushing boundaries with good food, great service, and a uniquely Caribbean atmosphere. Despite a hefty government tax, there are obvious incentives for private restaurateurs. Furthermore, the competition of private establishments is forcing state-run restaurants to clean up their act.
A meeting with a Cuban official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs revealed deep frustrations with contemporary US relations. The people of Cuba desperately want dissolution of the US embargo, which has been in place since 1960. Local officials argue that they come to the bargaining table again and again, but the United States keeps moving the goalposts farther away. The reality is that the embargo is not a salient issue for the American public and is easily swept aside. The one constituency with a real interest in the matter is the Cuban-American community, which holds strong resentment for the revolutionary government that expelled them more than 50 years ago. Cuban officials argue that US legislators are slave to the purse strings of this highly-motivated electorate. A great irony of US-Cuban relations is that we maintain strong economic ties with socialist governments like China and Vietnam, but refuse to concede any ground to our neighbor. But, then again, Cuba has little leverage to demand fair treatment these days.
As one economist stated, “the future of Cuba will be inextricably tied to that of the United States.” The expansion of market opportunities is a valuable starting point for the normalization of relations, but Cuba cannot unilaterally determine the course. American policy towards the island is grounded in a historical narrative that will be difficult to overcome. Furthermore, the state of relations is highly subject to Executive opinion. President Obama has eased restrictions since taking office, yet Republican front runner Mitt Romney has pledged to return the embargo to its former stature. Cuba may be complicated but it is not what you think. It is much, much more than that.
Post by Rob Panos