As someone that grew up during the Cold War, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing two years ago during my initial visit to Cuba.
The island nation extension of the “Evil Empire” (as President Reagan referred to the Soviet Union) seemed to be almost giddy about anything American. U.S. flags and clothes displaying various renditions of the “stars and stripes” were ubiquitous. Subsequently, Obama T-shirts seemed to be in vogue.
All of these commercial and consumer edifications of Cuba’s neighbor to the north were signs that the restrictive U.S. policies that had been in place for decades against the Castro regime were thawing. Sure, the embargo continued to prevent trade between the U.S. and Cuba, but ground was being broken on an American embassy in Cuba, and travel policies for American tourists were becoming more flexible.
When I returned to Cuba just a few weeks ago, the Cuban economy demonstrated significant signs of growth in response to two years of perestroika. Tourism was booming, and for the first time since the Kennedy administration, an American hotel chain (Starwood) was planning to expand its business ventures within Cuba. These convergences of new and anticipated commercial activities had also spurned the opening of a number of paladares, or private restaurants, throughout Havana and other urbanized areas.
Unfortunately for both Cubans and Americans, there is a new sheriff in town who wants to revert to Cold War Era policies.
Trump’s plan to roll back Obama era policies toward Cuba by squashing plans for American businesses to build hotels and related commercial ventures within the island nation don’t appear to be guided by a compelling policy strategy for the 21st century. Decades of economic embargos, assassination attempts on Castro, and other punitive measures taken against the Castro regime have only resulted in galvanizing support for an authoritarian leader that otherwise would probably have been overthrown internally.
The U.S. has served the Castro brothers well as a foil to divert attention away from their failed economic strategies. Instead of reverting to Cold War era policies towards Cuba, the Trump administration could learn a lot about how to cultivate a more favorable political and economic climate in Cuba by studying the Ireland example.
Rise of the Celtic Tiger
Throughout most of the 20th Century, Cuba held much in common with the Irish Isle (the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland, U.K.).
Both islands gained their independence during this century after spending hundreds of years as colonies of world powers. In addition, both countries were unable to liberate all of their island territory from the nations they fought against for independence. In the case of Ireland, the British continued to control Northern Ireland, and the U.S. still exerts a military presence on Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
Subsequently, both island nations placed a huge emphasis on higher education since they gained their independence, but experienced substantial brain drain for most of the 20th century because of a lack of well-paying professional opportunities for young graduates.
Both countries remained isolated economically, socially and politically as a result of draconian policies. In the case of Ireland, the Catholic Church’s dominance over the political system stymied economic opportunities, especially for Irish women, well into the 20th century. Within Cuba, Castro’s authoritarian economic policies limited opportunities for most Cubans in a similar manner.
In contrast to Cuba, Ireland was able to undo a host of antiquated social and economic policies beginning in the 1970s with the loosening of restrictions on women working to the Divorce Act in 1995. These changes, in tandem with the subsiding of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland with the Good Friday Accord in 1996, catalyzed an economic boom on the Irish Isle, often referred to as the “Rise of the Celtic Tiger.”
American and European corporations in high tech and pharmaceutical fields quickly opened shop within Ireland, and the Irish in turn were able to unleash an enterprising spirit that resulted in the initiation of a host of successful small business ventures. For the first time in their history, Ireland was able to surpass most European countries in job growth.
Cuba, in tandem with Ireland, can boast of an excellent higher education system, professionalized workforce, as well as a small business sector that is beginning to thrive. Instead of placing a damper on private sector growth, the U.S. needs to join the rest of the developed world in fostering greater levels of commercial activity with our Caribbean neighbor.
Ultimately, Trump’s regressive policy will have the same impact that Cold War era policies had toward Cuba since the early 1960s. In sum, America will fail to catalyze political change in Cuba, and the rest of the world, including China, will continue to expand upon their business ventures within the island nation at our expense.
For additional reading on this subject, please check out the following sources:
Besel, K., Bradley, T., and Bielefeld, W. (2013). The Road to God Knows Where: Sustaining Northern Ireland NGOs in a Post Agreement World. Journal of the Indiana Academy for the Social Sciences. 16(1).
Besel, K., and Brown, J. (2007). Catholic NGOs Following the 1995 Referendum on Divorce in the Republic of Ireland. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 17(4).
Bobes, V.C. (2013). Cuban Civil Society During and Beyond the Special Period. International Journal of Cuban Studies. 5(2), 168-183.
Higman, B.W. (2011). A Concise History of the Caribbean. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Javed, F. “Cracking Cuba Open: The New Frontier of US-Cuban Relations.” Harvard International Review, 2015 36(4), 15-30.