This is a guest post from a close friend of mine, Chris Maury. Chris’ family left Cuba in 1961, and since then he has been the only family member to return. He is currently studying Cuban politics at Washington University in St. Louis and will be enrolling in a PhD program at the Univerisity of Pittsburgh next fall. In this post, Chris talks about the future of Cuba.
After 50 years of authoritarian control by the Castros, reform is finally coming to Cuba. The changes, though, are not coming from the Cuban government–they are coming from a government that has already changed tremendously in the three months its been in office. Ours. This may be bad news for Cuban cigar vendors hidden throughout the U.S., but many–myself included–are excited at the prospect of visiting the traditionally forbidden isle.
As a Cuban-American/American-Cuban, being able to freely travel to Cuba was a major issue in the 2008 election. It is why I voted for Obama in the Democratic primary, and it is why I have been paying such close attention to the news since they announced the reformed travel rules for Cuban-Americans back in early March.
Now, with the introduction a bill to lift the travel-ban entirely and a delegation of Senators meeting with Raúl and Fidel, the prospect of free travel–if not trade–is brighter than ever. While this means another hot vacation spot for American tourists, the majority of this legislation’s impact is going to fall squarely on the Cuban people. A significant increase in tourism–some suggest up to 3 or 4 times the amount of visitors–is likely to have a major impact. American tourism could be the best thing for the island since the poetry of José Martí…or the worst since Generál Baptista.
The tourism industry is already one of the top producers for the Cuban economy, attracting over 2 million people a year. If the travel-ban is lifted, the GDP will certainly increase. Tourism has already had a tremendous impact on Cuban society, creating a huge earnings gap between those employed by the state and those with access to foreign currencies, be that through remittance payments from the US, running a taxi, or working in tourist hotels. The effects are already apparent–dollar malls, dollar Internet cafés, and dollar lines at Copelia’s, Havana’s premier ice cream parlor. As far as dual currency goes, “separate but equal” is the rule, but hard currency gained from American tourism could potentially disrupt class economics on a more intense level.
Part of what makes Cuba such an appealing destination is its culture. More than just a chintzy souvenir shop in a dime-a-dozen port of call for Caribbean cruise-liners, Cuba has a rich history of music, dance, food and art. If this tradition is lost in order to attract more and more tourists, it would be a sad day for both Americans and Cubans. Cuba is more than just rum, cigars, and pictures of Che. Preservation of culture is definitely an issue.
The immediate economic impact is obvious. Americans are the definition of consumers, and a sudden and massive influx of strong currency can only help the economy. Fortunately for Cuba, the economic benefits will not end with tourism. In the first wave of Americans to the island, there will be people much more important than tourists–investors. Cuba has a vast (if underfunded) infrastructure of medical and hard science research. There is a large (if under-employed) workforce of highly educated and technologically savvy individuals. Investment opportunity is ripe in Cuba for the company willing to take the risk of working under the Cuban government. If you do not see immediate, tangible investments, you will undoubtedly see relationships forming like worker exchange programs or other research co-ventures.
Cuban politics are as complicated now as they have been since the signing of the Platt Amendment. Power has successfully transitioned from Fidel to Raúl without a single uprising or coup attempt. Any change in policy in the short term is going to come from the top. It is not likely that we will see elections anytime soon, or even the spontaneous release of political prisoners. What we can count on, though, is the government’s cooperation with any interested investors willing to prop up their foundering economy.
Sex tourism has been a huge problem in Cuba since even before the revolution. I don’t mean only prostitution, but young girls willing to marry foreigners just for an exit visa. Take poverty, throw in a population of women whose exoticism borders on eroticism, add tourists–not the best combination. With a spike in American tourism, human trafficking will only increase. The Cuban government, perhaps even the U.S. government, need to take steps to prevent the growth of this industry in a post-embargo era.
If there is one group that is positioned to benefit from increased interactions with the U.S., it’s Cuba’s young and tech savvy Generation Y. They are as politically active as one can be in an autocratic regime. If we see any changes in Cuba, it will be with the strong support of Generation Y’s like Yaoni Sánchez. If you are interested in upcoming events from a Cuban perspective, I highly recommend her blog. For all you hyper-polygots out there, it is available in 16 languages! Check it out here: http://desdecuba.com/generationy.
Change was the platform that President Obama ran on in 2008, and if he supports the legislation proposed in the Senate, change is exactly what we are going to see. What do you think?