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Chapman’s News & Ideas Exaggerating the Cuba Change

School's out

School’s out

To me, the most remarkable thing about President Obama’s decision to recognize Cuba diplomatically is that it does not represent as big a change as either the President or his critics suggest. We soon can have an “embassy” in Cuba where we have an “interests section” now. Well, that interests section is bigger than most of our embassies around the world, especially in countries with only eleven million people. The sign on the outside wall may change, and there may be more paling around with diplomats in Havana posted from other countries. But the essential differences will be minor.

Secondly, the tourism change is also minor. You would get the idea from the news that Americans will now be able go to Cuba with only a perfunctory visa from the Cubans. The thing is, for all practical matters, that already is the case. We hear that people now must fly to Cuba from Montreal or Toronto. Many do, of course, but there also are over thirty flights daily from Miami on American Airlines! These are called “charters,” but that doesn’t even change the paint on the planes, let alone the make up of the crews. They are regular daily American Airline flights in all but name.

We are advised that while mere “tourists” still will not be able to fly to Cuba under the new dispensation, anyone hereafter can claim an “educational” purpose and get US and Cuban approval easily. Well, pssst!, don’t tell anyone, but that already is the case. I went to Cuba with an “educational” group three years ago and it was a snap. Alone or with family and friends you can attach yourself to any purpose you want–and almost any you can imagine. Some I saw were “education” in Samba dancing, yoga and help for the Russian Orthodox Church in Cuba! (I didn’t know you were Russian Orthodox, I told a friend. “I was for one week,” he replied.) Now the illusion of educational purpose will be even more quickly established–the official winks in the US and Cuba will be even broader. But face it, even before the President’s announcement, you could contact a travel agency that specializes in Cuba (there are several) and tell them that your educational purpose, say, was “learning about Cuba” and–done!–you were on your way.

Well, under the new US policy remittances from overseas Cubans can increase from $500 to $2000! Well, I do not think the U.S. has bothered to enforce the $500 limit lately, and for their part the Cuban government is very eager to have the greenbacks. As for consumer goods, most of those 30 flights from Miami to Havana each day include scores of people hauling everything from televisions to air conditioners to washing machines, all swaddled in green plastic film to protect them from theft. The relatives in Cuba are glad to have them and the authorities don’t care at either end. Today you can’t do business in washing machines with Cuba, of course, but you won’t be able to after Obama’s declaration, either. Lifting the embargo for more general trade would take an act of Congress. Allowing free enterprise in Cuba would require a huge change of policy by the Castros. (And think about it; what does Cuba produce that has a market anywhere? Cigars? Okay, and what else? Sugar? You’ve got to be kidding. No, what Cuba has are sunshine, samba and sand, and all of that is for tourism, not export.)

So, what we have as a result of President Obama’s action is a slight loosening of real restrictions, and perhaps a sizable increase in expectations. The fact that the Vatican was involved in the negotiations also may suggest a happier existence for the Church in Cuba going forward; we’ll see, won’t we?

But there is no sign that the people of Cuba will be freer. More may find a way to emigrate, maybe fewer will be arrested for dissent. But Cuba is still a police state where the people of that beautiful island are afraid to talk to strangers without looking over their shoulders to see if they are being over-heard. Inequality is at least as notable as in the U.S. The rise of tourism has led to the odd situation that tour guides make more money than doctors or lawyers and wind up supporting extended families. The puritanical socialism of the early Castro days also is now totally compromised as prostitutes hang out around the hotel pools. Unfortunately, that may get worse.

Ordinary Cubans cannot get news from America except through party organs. It will be fascinating to see whether the government now frees up the Internet to any extent. If it does and if there are even larger swarms of American visitors on the island, it also should be fascinating to witness the reaction politically. People may have been propagandized against the United States for five decades, but that doesn’t mean they have lost a taste for freedom.

The increasing crowds of Americans going to Cuba also need to bear in mind that they are seeing something of a Potemkin village. The easy going tour guides and waiters, etc. are not typical of the average Cuban. You need to talk to those ordinary people to get a truer picture, and you might notice whether they are hesitant to talk–and draw some conclusions from that hesitance. Get out into the countryside if you want to see true conditions, and especially if you speak some Spanish. You not only will get a more accurate feel for the country, but you might actually have some influence on opening the place up.

Cuba and America are destined to be close friends. Eventually.

A staged neighborhood party for tourists

A staged neighborhood party for tourists

Adam Chapman, Howard Chapman, and Bruce Chapman.

Adam Chapman, Howard Chapman, and Bruce Chapman.

Street market

Street market

Not much to buy

Not much to buy

Hemingway's favorite bar

Hemingway’s favorite bar

Update: The President’s indication in his announcement that the Cuban government was going to free 50 more political prisoners is beginning to look trivial, and, for that matter, unreal. Read Byron York.