It’s been a month since President Obama made his announcement beginning the process of Normalization of Relations with Cuba. The timing of the announcement was perfect, and predictable. For President Obama, it was right after the November elections. For president Raul Castro, it had been critical to find a more reliable source of hard currency. The early negotiations between Cuba and the U.S. began about 18 months earlier, just after Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez died. It became apparent to Castro that there would be decreasing amounts of Venezuelan oil being sent to Cuba.
It is now likely that economic aid from Venezuela may soon stop altogether. This is why the fanatic Cuban-Americans such as Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz flipped-out after Obama’s announcement. (Neither has ever been to Cuba, but for some unexplained reason, they have been granted “expert” status by the media.) They seem to be hoping for an economic collapse in Cuba, leading to serious de-stabilization. They believe they could finally visit their homeland after it has been devastated economically and be hailed as conquering heroes. Leaders of virtually every other country in the world would prefer a stable Cuba that rapidly evolves with a modernized economy. This outcome apparently is also the preference of most Congressional Democrats and a significant number of Republicans—those who are actually familiar with the current situation in Cuba.
As I’ve mentioned previously, the Embargo will probably continue for many years, because it can only be changed by Congress. Normalization is a different process where each side can make small concessions that may gradually bring both countries closer, even while agreeing to disagree on certain issues.
Some examples of these small changes are downright humorous. For example, the Department of the Treasury will now “allow” each American traveler to bring back $100 worth of Cuban cigars and rum. Officially, this is a small step forward. Practically, it really doesn’t matter, because American travelers have commonly brought back rum and cigars for many years. In Miami, Cuban-Americans returning from their homeland have routinely brought back hundreds of dollars worth of these products on every flight. Often they were greeted by a Cuban-American customs agent who knew exactly what was going on and let them through. Some laws and regulations deserve to be ignored, and these certainly were.
I always mentioned to my groups that none of my previous returning fellow travelers ever had a bag opened in customs in Miami, so many (if not most) brought back “contraband.” In an era of terrorism and bomb threats, it always seemed silly and wasteful for customs and security professionals to be spending any time on such matters. This is probably why they usually didn’t. But I think it’s okay if U.S. Government representatives now feel empowered to “allow” such activity, if that makes them feel more in control.
In a similar way, the Treasury Department claims it will now be “a little easier” for Americans to visit Cuba on “purposeful travel, but not as tourists.” In reality, American tourists could always travel to Cuba as long as they claimed they had a purpose (and implied that they were NOT tourists). Once again, if our government wants to believe or pretend that this is a significant change, why not?
In my opinion, this “go-slow” approach is already irrelevant. The genie is out of the bottle, and can’t be put back in. American travel companies are being inundated with inquiries about travel to Cuba. Many tours are filling up, in spite of some outrageous prices.
This situation is exactly what many of us Cuba-watchers have hoped for. I believe the people of Cuba and the United States will resolve this matter on their own. Decisions made by their governments will be far less relevant in the near future. Because of a large increase in the demand for Cuba travel, prices are rapidly going up. This will result in more money from American visitors circulating in the Cuban economy. The Cuban government will have more resources to improve infrastructure. This will also help mitigate the urgent situation of declining petroleum products that have been flowing from Venezuela.
In addition, more Americans will be transferring money directly to individual Cubans. They will do this through tips in the tourism sector, and through direct payment for goods and services. In the last two years, the Cuban government has encouraged individual Cubans and families to start their own businesses. Of course the expectation was that more money would be collected through taxation. But, as in the U.S., a lot of small business income will continue to go untaxed, and the overall amount will increase. This allows the proprietors to reinvest it in their businesses rather than wasting so much of it funding a bloated bureaucracy. (Does this sound familiar, my fellow Americans?)
This new flow of cash will be in addition to the billions of dollars Cuban-Americans have annually been sending to, and taking to their relatives back in Cuba. The American government has been graciously “allowing” increased limits on these remittances over the past few years. In reality, Cuban-Americans have been ignoring these limits and other similar regulations for decades. One estimate for cash remittances sent to Cuba from family members in the U.S. in 2014was around $3 billion, and increasing. After the path to normalization has become more clear, that amount is likely to double or triple.
In the near future, more Americans visiting Cuba will mean new friendships and partnerships. There will be more opportunities for Americans to help through micro-investments. The people of Cuba and the U.S. can accelerate the improvement of life for Cubans. This won’t be done with the help of both governments, but in spite of both governments. If they will just get out of the way and minimize interference, Cuba just might have a bright future.
You will continue to hear Cuban-American extremists trying to explain why normalization should not happen. In reality, all the explanations I’ve heard from the Marco Rubios of the world actually provide good reasons why normalization should progress as quickly as possible.