Over the last two months an extraordinary level of interest has emerged in finding ways to accelerate engagement with Cuba. From the tourists who ‘want to see it before it changes’ to Governments concerned that their longer-term interests are protected, the level of activity is intense.
For the most part there is little realism, understanding, or appreciation of the extent to which Cuba will continue to manage and control the process and seek to balance relationships in ways that recognise those nations or organisations that been supportive when times were difficult.
For this reason some of the concerns being expressed in the Caribbean in recent weeks about the possible economic threat posed by a changed Cuba-US relationship seem ill-founded; saying more perhaps about the fragility of most of the economies of CARICOM and their dependence on tourism.
As was widely reported in the region, Perry Christie, the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, suggested when opening the recent Heads of Government meeting in Nassau, that the region should consider taking action to neutralise any adverse impact that could result from the United States’ decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.
That the comment came from the Bahamas is hardly surprising as its proximity to the US makes it more likely than most Caribbean nations to suffer the immediate effect of any reduction in visitors as a result of the US decision to ease its travel restrictions to Cuba.
In being concerned about a change in Cuba-US relations, the Bahamas is of course not alone. There is also a sense in the wider world that companies, organisations and nations now need to move rapidly to ensure they are not in some way economically or politically disadvantaged by US policy and the normalisation of relations.
In the case of Europe, for example, after a number of postponements, European Commission officials are now trying to accelerate exchanges that should lead to a first ever EU framework political and development agreement with Cuba. The French President, Francois Hollande, will visit on 11 May, reflecting France’s desire to play a central role in delivering an agreement with Europe, while protecting its economic interests. And in April, following last year’s first British Ministerial visit to Havana in more than a decade, a large investment mission led by Lord Hutton, a former Defence Secretary and the chair of the UK’s bilateral Cuba Initiative, will visit.
Others too including Russia, China, and Brazil, to say nothing of the large delegations of US Senators, agriculturalists, hotel operators and investors, states such as New York, southern US cities vying with Miami to become the gateway, US airlines, and telecommunications and IT companies, are all in the process of trying to have a role or a long-term presence.
This interest may well grow further if, as is now widely expected, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, announces in the coming weeks the US’s intention to remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. While the immediate impact may only be perceptual, it will enable the opening of full embassies in Havana and Washington and a possible encounter between President Obama and President Castro at the time of Summit of the Americas on 10-11 April in Panama.
Despite this new found enthusiasm for Cuba, the reality is that process of engagement remains uncertain and will likely be slow in its implementation.
This is because fundamental differences continue to exist. Cuba is looking for an economic opening and being left alone, while the US continues to seek a change in Cuban society and its governance. Moreover, the US trade embargo remains in place, enshrined in complex interlocking legislation.
It is also likely that Cuba will want to pace the process of engagement with the US once the first measures relating to detente have been put in place. This is because it is undertaking a number of difficult interrelated structural reforms.
Cuba is about to undergo a generational change in its leadership. President Castro will step down in 2018; Cuba’s First Vice President, Miguel Díaz-Canel, is only just beginning to appear more frequently in the Cuban media, speaking on key policy issues of interest to the young such as internet access, and has only just begun travelling abroad; the next Communist Party Congress is set for April 2016; electoral reform may be announced; and President Castro has proposed future term limits for top leadership positions in the government. Cuba is also about to undertake the socially challenging process of causing its two official currencies to converge, as a part of its plans to create a more liberal and decentralised domestic economy.
For this reason it is more realistic to expect at a US-Cuba government to government level only limited progress over the next two years; that is to say, the two Embassies will be restored, and a basis created for a serious long-term dialogue on issues such as terrorism, public health, counter-narcotics co-operation, the environment, offshore oil exploration, air routes, postal services and more.
While it is possible to envisage that in the US, Cuba may quite rapidly become the new normal, much else will be slow and complicated and there will continue to be fundamental disagreements on political matters.
Therefore, a more realistic scenario, since the embargo will remain, is that there will be limited but tantalising economic advances for the US in agriculture, telecommunications, direct air services, tourism in all but name, and non-state trade, placing pressure on Congress for further change.
It is also reasonable to expect, despite the likely lifting of the state sponsor of terrorism designation, banks may be reluctant to be first movers. Lawyers will have a field day challenging OFAC and every other US department. The lobbyists will descend on Washington in force. The airlines, cruise ships, lawyers, agriculturalists, oil industry, telecoms, construction, and states other than Florida will call in their political support in Congress. Some largely Republican hardliners in Congress, undercut by reality of commercial engagement, may gradually become more muted. Attitudes in South Florida and New Jersey will continue to change as opportunities emerge in Cuba for Cuban American and their families living in Cuba increase in relation to trade, housing and construction. Human rights issues may be removed to a separate US-Cuba forum and Cuba will become less of an impediment to the US improving its hemispheric relations.
There may also be a clash of cultural and moral values as new and complex issues emerge in relation to the internet and social media if the Cuban state sees its values eroded.
And more prosaically, as Prime Minister Christie implied, US visitors will arrive in ever increasing numbers, making it harder to get a hotel room.
As earlier columns have noted, expect Cuba to determine the pace at which its relationships go forward.
It is time to be more realistic.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at