The Cuba question remains

I wrote the headline and deck for this column just before the November election. It’s one of those headlines a writer is proud of not because it is gripping or particularly insightful, but because it weathers the storm. Since the day I wrote it, Donald Trump has become president-elect and Fidel Castro has died. I could have written a new headline, of course, but this one will remain accurate for some time to come.

During a recent trip to Cuba organized by the American Agricultural Editors’ Association’s Professional Improvement Fund, I learned that the relationship between Cuba and the United States will remain complicated, regardless of what either country proposes.

In the United States, some would liberalize trade and travel with Cuba simply for the opportunity to supply the market and visit the country. Yet Cuban-Americans poured into the streets of Miami celebrating Castro’s death. Many have stories to justify such a celebration. Some Cuban-American families have been on U.S. soil long enough to have lived the American dream, amassing considerable wealth. The day after Castro died, I received a press release from Bomnin Chevrolet, a car dealership in Miami that claims to be the largest Chevy dealer in the south and the largest minority-owned dealership in the country. Arnaldo Bomnin, the owner, sent the release out to announce a $15,000 discount on high-end cars in the wake of Castro’s passing. Whoever wrote the release carefully avoided sounding too celebratory, but knocking $15,000 off a Corvette before the embalming sends a certain message.

Immigrants who have fled oppressive societies may send remittances back home to help family (which Cuban-Americans do by the billions of dollars), but they typically don’t have much interest in propping up the regime they fled. Thus, a vocal, increasingly wealthy voting and lobbying bloc of Cuban-Americans send their influence to Capitol Hill. It has its effect.

As much as our federal stance toward the nation has softened, the socialist political infrastructure of Cuba isn’t ready for a full and rapid thaw. Even as Raul Castro has announced that he will step down from power in 2018, what will take his place is uncertain. The Cuban government, in its effort to maintain its control, understands that it can’t squeeze too hard for fear of returning to the squalid days just after the Soviet Union fell. Cuba’s GDP was eviscerated when Soviet sugar subsidies and other favorable spending dried up in the 1990s. Venezuela, which has long held a special relationship with Cuba, has gone off its socialist skids toward the abyss of economic collapse. It has affected Cuba’s economy—and such a dismal turn of events doesn’t go unnoticed.

A divergent path would be for Cuba to launch fundamental reform from within. From the conversations we had with governmental officials, restaurant entrepreneurs, farmers and translators, the notion of massive reform frightens everyone. I can report that Cubans are proud of who they are, the struggle the country endured before 1959 and the struggle it has endured since. What frightens Cubans about the idea of radical reform is the change that would follow. Havana may be a pretty girl in shabby clothes, as one economist told us, but if it’s a proliferation of McDonald’s and Starbucks that will pay for nicer clothes, many Cubans seem prepared to take a pass.

All of this combines to leave Cubans blinking warily toward the economic engine to its north. The United States, if sanctions are lifted, can deliver a firehose of exports and tourism spending. The trouble is Cuba can’t pay for it—not without terms of credit that have been denied by U.S. restrictions.

The conundrum remains. Can the United States and Cuba work out claims on assets that were nationalized as the revolution of 1959 took a grip on the island? Will reforms in Cuba convince Cuban-Americans that it has turned a corner on human rights? Will liberalized tourism and agricultural trade give Cuba the kind of capital it would take to usher in such changes?

I told a compatriot who went on the trip that it would be a few years before the thing worked itself out. Pretty soon, I told her, anyone who had skin in the game in 1959 will be dead. It might be easier then—if you’re an optimist. One thing we’ve learned about competing systems of economics and social order, though: Even an optimist should count on trouble.

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