US President Barack Obama has fulfilled a promise made to Cuban-Americans during last year’s presidential campaign to ease travel restrictions allowing them to visit Cuba as they wish, and to send money back home to their dependents.
This decision has caused more than a ripple of concern among tourism authorities in some Caribbean countries, and contradictory statements have been issued about the likely effect on their tourism industries.
The reality is that Caribbean countries have little to fear from President Obama’s policy. Easing travel for Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba will have little or no effect on other Caribbean destinations. Very few Cuban-Americans travel on holiday to Caribbean countries.
The real impact on Caribbean tourism will come when the US and Cuba normalise relations and the 49-year-old US embargo on Cuba comes to an end.
But the worry that Obama’s decision has created in some Caribbean countries is a good thing. None of them should predicate the development of their tourist industry on a continuing trade blockade of Cuba by the US. Sooner or later the embargo will be lifted and Cuba will be a strong and direct competitor with other Caribbean countries for US tourists and US investment in the tourist industry. Neighbouring Caribbean countries must therefore prepare themselves for this competition and be ready to meet it.
Hopefully, the concern generated by the easing of travel restrictions to Cuba for Cuban-Americans will catapult other Caribbean countries into serious planning for the lifting of the US embargo.
It is as well to review the announcement made on April 13th by Obama’s White House spokesman Robert Gibbs during a daily briefing with reporters. The announcement was a major policy shift from the position of his predecessor George W Bush, but President Obama chose not to make it himself; instead it was made by his spokesman at a daily press briefing, not even an extraordinary one.
Announcing the change in this way must have been arranged. In other words, Obama seems to have chosen not to give the announcement great prominence and importance by delivering it himself. It can only be surmised that he opted to do so because of all the media hype that suggested he would be confronted by other leaders about Cuba during the Summit of the Americas even though it is not on the agenda for formal discussion. He might not have wanted it to appear that he was bowing to pressure.
Obama had let it be known that he did not wish the subject of Cuba to bog down the Summit which he preferred to focus on the present challenges of the global financial crisis that faces the entire hemisphere. In this, he has found support from the influential president of Brazil, Lula da Silva. There will be many other leaders who will play to the media gallery by discussing the Cuba issue outside of the conference room, but it is most unlikely that any of them, apart from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, will try to force Obama into a full-scale defence of his policy toward Cuba.
And what is Obama’s policy? He set it out in a speech at a Cuban Independence Day Luncheon, hosted by the Cuban American National Foundation in Florida last May.
He said two things. First, “There are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans. That’s why I will immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island.” He has now done that. Second, he said: “I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: if you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalising relations. That’s the way to bring about real change in Cuba – through strong, smart and principled diplomacy.”
His position is clear. It is a position, incidentally, that is publicly shared by the Canadian government which, while it has always had full relations with Cuba, says that if Cuba is to be allowed to return to the Organisation of American States (OAS) it “will obviously depend on Cuba’s will to address hemispheric norms of participation, including representative democracy and respect for human rights”.
So, there should be no early expectation of a lifting of the US embargo. Obama has made the first step toward reaching out to Cuba; it is up to the Castro government to show willingness in a similar fashion. As I argued in an earlier commentary (Castro could help Obama to end the US embargo), the cold-war, anti-communist, anti-imperialist arguments of both sides are now anachronisms. What’s required are practical and pragmatic decisions by the governments of both countries to normalise relations.
Instead of some of the Latin American and Caribbean countries posturing, they should establish a small representative group to help broker movement by both the US and Cuban governments to normalise relations. A great opportunity now exists, and it should be that task that the OAS sets itself.
Returning to the matter of a threat to the tourism industry of neighbouring Caribbean countries posed by the ease on travel for Cuban Americans to Cuba, no such threat exists. The problem is in the longer term prospect of a lifting of the ban on travel for all Americans to Cuba. For other Caribbean countries will feel the impact not only from the displacement of thousands of American tourists from their shores, but also from the shift of foreign direct investment from them to Cuba in tourism infrastructure such as hotels, shops, and cruise ship ports.
Indigenous Caribbean organisations would do well to themselves now invest in Cuba’s tourism industry so that they can benefit from the traffic that is now there and is bound to increase once the embargo is lifted.
The Jamaicans have led the way both through the promotion of double-destination holidays with Cuba and by direct investment in Cuba’s tourism industry.
Competition will come from Cuba without a doubt; now is the time for all Caribbean countries to plan for it. And it may not be a bad thing to start talking directly with the Cuban government about restructuring the industry together so that all the countries in the Caribbean Sea can share its benefits now and when the embargo is finally cut adrift.