Stratton and Sawhney: Is change in Cuba in our near future?

Abigail Stratton and Asha Sawhney

This January in his annual State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced Washington’s strategy on Cuba was “long past its expiration date.” Obama then ordered Congress to begin the hard work to lift the embargo, and a State Department official said the department wants more diplomats in Cuba, fewer travel restrictions, more U.S. supplies in Havana and embassy access to Cubans. Companies such as Netflix and Airbnb have announced expansion into the Cuban market. However, there are many obstacles that will make this process of re-establishing diplomatic ties a long one, the largest being that Cuba is still officially considered a terrorist threat, which prohibits aid, arms sales, trade and credit from global institutions. Even assuming the success of removing these barriers, it is still unclear whether Cuba and Cubans will be effectively helped or hurt by the United States’ lifting its embargo. Although 66 percent of Americans oppose the embargo, according to the Pew Research Center, the Cuban-American community is equally split. Opponents of the policy shift claim the United States is simply handing power to the Castros as they throw political dissidents in jail, and Raul Castro himself has said that in no way will lifting the embargo alter the political climate Cuba has worked so hard for. However, if the Castros agree to the expansion of U.S. companies and technology on the island, lifting the embargo could help bring Cuba into the age of the Internet and increase access to information, which could arguably provide Cubans with greater freedom. The big question then is, is dismantling the trade embargo a step in the right direction that will produce tangible results, or is it a self-congratulatory move on the United States’ part that will not actually uplift the living conditions of Cuban citizens?

Abigail Stratton:

In President Obama’s announcement last month, it is important to note that the United States is attempting to “normalise relations,” not end the embargo. However, it may be the beginning of a movement toward updating the nation’s attitude and strategy on Cuba which, as Obama stated, is “long past its expiration date.” In his State of the Union address, the president acknowledged the potential for positive change in these new policy decisions: “Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people… Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.”

The acknowledgement of the problem is the easy part. A meeting last month between U.S. assistant secretary of state Roberta Jacobson and Cuban foreign ministry’s chief of U.S. affairs Josefina Vidal was the highest level meeting of American and Cuban diplomats for the last 38 years. Implementation of new policies and attempts to ameliorate the relationship will be difficult. In particular, it is difficult to determine how exactly the conversation between the two governments will go. As Kirby Jones, the president of the U.S.-Cuba trade consultancy Alamar Associates, mentions, “there are 50 years of regulations to rewrite.”

Despite the obvious hurdles involved in opening up U.S.-Cuban relations, companies such as Netflix and Airbnb, a company that allows locals to rent rooms in their homes to tourists or foreigners, are attempting to expand their markets to include the Cuban population. While there are many obstacles to Netflix becoming a success, mainly the lack of internet access, credit card use and low incomes in Cuba, Netflix wants to introduce its product into Cuban markets now “with the hope that Internet service will improve, household incomes will rise and diplomatic relations with the U.S. will continue to thaw.” These are, of course, hopes. Airbnb has a similar stance in that it is making decisions that could improve diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. If the companies are successful, however, it could help usher Cuba into the modern technological era, expanding Internet access to the public and opening the country’s economy to credit card companies, tourism and other forms of income for the Cuban people.

For now, attempting to break into the Cuban market is in many ways symbolic. Until the embargo is dismantled further and U.S.-Cuban relations are more stable, little will be accomplished. The United States has improved its relations with other countries such as Vietnam and Myanmar, but the laws aimed at “staunching money-flows” to Cuba make this case particularly challenging. Raul Castro has also warned against lofty expectations, saying, “We must not expect that in order for relations with the United States to improve, Cuba will abandon the ideas that it has struggled for.” So while these changes in the influx of U.S. companies and President Obama’s statements are encouraging, there is a long road ahead before any significant change can be accomplished.

Asha Sawhney:

It is important to note when discussing the U.S. embargo on Cuba that it is impossible to undo 50 years of policy with a single, unilateral action. Each individual restriction that will be removed will require dozens of policies to be altered. For example, although United Airlines has announced they will begin direct flights to Havana pending government approval, this announcement is a bit premature considering 10 to 15 doors will have to be opened to make this possible, according to Jones. Likewise, Cubans will not be immediately brought back to freedom if the United States lifts the embargo, since restrictions on behalf of the Cuban government will largely remain unchanged.

The Castro brothers have warned the Obama administration and the U.S. government as a whole to leave behind any hope of reforming communism in the island nation. This staunch opposition to internal economic reform makes it likely that the average Cuban will continue to earn almost nothing by U.S. standards, which turns U.S. expansion in Cuba into a largely symbolic move. Airbnb and Netflix cannot expect to profit in a market where high-speed Internet and credit card usage is virtually non-existent. Nor is there expected to be greater access to these services if Cuba maintains its own state restrictions.

The U.S. embargo does not completely prevent Mexican telecommunications giant Carlos Slim, Spanish company Telefonica, Ireland’s Digicell or numerous other foreign companies from doing business. In these cases companies cannot provide Internet access in homes because the Cuban state prohibits it. Loosening trade restrictions also seems like it will do nothing to uplift the living conditions of the average Cuban, since 90 percent of the business in the nation is state-owned. If foreign businesses were to set up shop, the state would also interfere with any possible benefits for citizens by requiring they hire through the state, which means they would have the power to devalue wages, which would turn a $500 dollar paycheck into a $21 one.

According to Jennifer Harris, an economist at the Council on Foreign Relations, the real beneficiaries of the upcoming policy shifts will be U.S. farmers who will export fish, grain, poultry, etc. Although many of the policies that will keep Cubans from having the same quality of life as citizens of other nations come from the Cuban government itself, it is critical that the United States remembers its role in devastating the Cuban economy through the embargo, with an estimated $116.8 billion of damages that harmed innocent citizens. Even if lifting the embargo might eventually give average Cubans tangible, positive results, as of now we have only made announcements and small steps towards this end. After 55 years of intentional damage, words and speeches are definitely not enough to make the United States a savior and Cuba the villain. We should be cautious before adopting a self-congratulatory attitude.

Abby Stratton is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]. Asha Sawhney is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].