Mr. Obama goes to Havana

Cuba’s tourism market is expected to get a big boost from the country’s thaw with the U.S.
Cuba’s tourism market is expected to get a big boost from the country’s thaw with the U.S.

United States President Barack Obama will visit Cuba on Monday, March 21. He will be the first sitting president to do so in 88 years. The trip carries some historic weight for Mr. Obama, as it highlights an accomplished foreign policy breakthrough; he first pronounced a push for rapprochement with Cuba back in December 2014. The question though, is: will either party gain from the Havana call? The answer seems to be, notmuch, writes GIS Expert Dr. Joseph S. Tulchin.

Aside from the symbolism of the visit – there will be a baseball game as well – no further steps of consequence for the progress of normalization between the two countries should be expected. On the U.S. side, the president can only do so much without congressional abrogation of the embargo it imposed on Cuba (first in 1960 and made airtight in 1962).

Moreover, Mr. Obama already has accomplished most of what he hoped to gain from the normalization, namely, a dramatic improvement in relations with the rest of the hemisphere.

It is no accident that the U.S. president will continue his trip from Cuba to Argentina, where he will meet with its new pragmatic president, Mauricio Macri. Mr. Obama hopes for a strengthening of the rule of law in the hemispheric community. A historic tide in Latin America is now turned against authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes, this is exactly the process that Mr. Obama wants to champion during his trip there.

On the Cuban side, the limits to progress are self-imposed. The Cuban economy is small and inefficient. The island no longer produces what it consumes. In the decade after the collapse of its former ally and benefactor, the Soviet Union, the Cuban economy contracted by nearly 50 percent.

Venezuelan support over the decade that followed was of great help; but that, too, is not viable if the price of petroleum stays below $50 per barrel. The only feasible solution for Cuba is to attract more foreign investment and for that, normalization in its relations with the U.S. has been indispensable.

The catch: it will not be easy for Cuba to absorb even the limited investment that it has been offered in the past year. Of all the agreements negotiated so far, the resumption of commercial air service may be the most important.

The tourism industry is one sector in which the Cubans are prepared for an increase in activity. Even though the process of privatizing the economy began over a decade ago, the state bureaucracy has shown itself to be inept and a real brake on change.

The other restraint on closer relations, of course, is the absence of freedom in Cuba. Human rights are not respected on the island and political contestation is frowned upon.

And yet, in the short run, it will be easier for the Castro brothers to lighten up on repression and, say, give people freer access to the Internet, than it will be for the clunky state apparatus to adapt to the new conditions of trade and investment.

The challenge for the regime will be to retain control over the country as it opens to the outside world. In the short run, Havana will have more trouble dealing with the economy than it will dealing with its dissidents or social media-savvy youths.

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