Harvey Mackay's Column This Week
Cradle-to-grave Cuba: Poised for rebirth?
By Harvey Mackay
The 1986 measures taken against South Africa surely hastened the end of apartheid. In most other cases, embargos are a blunder. Take Cuba. We started imposing sanctions against Cuba a half century ago. Where have they gotten us?
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has put a number to the impact. It cites estimates that the embargo annually sacrifices $1.2 billion in U.S. exports and revenues. That's nearly twice the cost suffered by Cuba, experts contend. George Shultz, Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan, said in 2009: "With the cold war behind us, we should simply remove the embargo on Cuba."
I just returned from my most recent visit to Cuba, having now been there a half-dozen times. This visit convinced me there will be a tremendous change in Cuba in the next five years. No one will recognize it from the paternalistic, cradle-to-grave operation that country has been since 1959. That's when Fidel Castro took power.
In 1976, I led a 21-person trade delegation to Havana for 5 days. Our goal was to negotiate future trade with Castro. That's also when I learned he also spoke perfect English -- after I struck up a conversation with him about his passion for bowling.
When Fidel checks out, Father Time will be the likely culprit. After all, El Comandante has survived countless assassination attempts and is 85. Meanwhile his younger brother -- the modest and pragmatic Raúl -- is really the helmsman. As to speechifying, Raúl is the short-winded sort, something his brother has never been. Fidel recently summoned sixty world leaders and harangued them for four hours. His wife made him rest for an hour, but then the octogenarian came back and pitched for another four.
Raúl, president of the Council of State of Cuba since 2008, is a savvy problem solver. Smoothly, and under the radar, Raúl has been dismantling Fidel's classical communist agenda:
Compared to Jamaica, Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras, Cuba is a jewel for the average citizen. The government pays all basic living expenses. With great medical care, its life expectancy rivals that of the United States.
- He's released a hundred political prisoners.
- He doesn't assail the U.S. as the root of all Cuba's problems.
- He has organized grassroots feedback organizations for himself.
- 178 categories of activity are now licensed for private-sector development and entrepreneurship.
- In the next five years, 40% of the economy will be privatized.
- Education is revered, and the population is remarkably well schooled.
- And, tourism has displaced sugar as the single most important force in the economy.
Life is still no day at the beach for the 11 million people of Cuba. Raúl is reputed to be as brutal as he is tough. Officials still get fired for dissing the government, which happened to two of them recently. Discretionary spending is a fantasy. The average Cuban income is a paltry $20 per month, since their essentials are basically provided.
With some of the richest soil in the world, Cuba stunningly imports 80% of its food. When the spigot of Soviet aid was stilled as the 1990s began, a $5-billion lifeline disappeared. Raised with a guaranteed lifetime job script, the new directive quickly became: If you want to live, you have to work! Getting to work is a daily trauma for many on an island outfitted with pre-Revolution 1950s American autos.
Freedom is stifled everywhere. While many Cuban kids have Facebook page, Internet access is restricted. Cubans hunger for the Internet and travel freedoms we take as givens. They also know a great deal about America. While bewildered by some of our political quirks, their affection for us yanks is remarkably high.
With the embargo in place, Cuban importing is a do-it-yourself proposition. Our group of 35 CEOs and spouses saw an unforgettable sight at the Miami airport: A six-block-line of Cuba-bound travelers standing 4-abreast with shrink-wrapped goods for their relatives and friends. Their parcels included food, medicine, clothing, blankets . . . and even a washing machine!
Despite sanctions up to a half-million, Cuban Americans fly to their ethnic homeland annually. Speculation about a possible oil bonanza in Cuba might cause us to look at the embargo differently. It may take something that dramatic for sanctions to end and for U.S. cruise ships to dock in Havana Harbor. Meanwhile, one wonders if Washington realizes who is paying the real price.
Mackay's Moral: Sanctions rarely speed democracy . . . especially when a regime has already begun to tilt in our direction.