An Island Nation Prepares for its Next Invasion: Dr. Robert Zuber

12 Jan

The sudden and dramatic announcement by the Obama Administration of a ‘thaw’ in the lengthy chill in relations between the US and one of its nearest neighbors was welcomed by many in the policy community, especially its ‘left-leaning’ wing.

Certainly there is cause for relief if not for outright celebration.   The decades-long embargo with its origins in Cold War security concerns, an embargo not supported by most of the rest of the international community, has long-since ceased to create political or economic value for either of the two countries most directly involved.

But just as melting ice caps endanger island states, this ‘thaw’ also raises caution flags.   While the Obama decision seemed to catch many off guard, there is plenty of reason to believe that US corporate titans have had contingency plans in place for some time, ready for the opportunity to expand operations on an island deemed ‘ripe’ for consumption beyond the state-sanctioned, limited economic interactions with tourists already appearing from Europe and other ‘friendly’ states.

As one of our visiting fellows, Dr. Megan Daigle, noted informally, there is a real danger that the promise of increased quality of life and political will for “ordinary” Cubans will be swept away in the “invasion” which this change in policy likely forecasts.  As of this writing, there has been no indication that the US travel embargo will be completely lifted, so there will be at least some delay in the expected mad dash of US tourists.  And as our fellow also indicated, there is already foreign investment in Cuba from European companies though, thus far, the Cuban government has maintained 51% ownership of all joint ventures.  If the state maintains some vague semblance of that policy, it might have a chance of holding on and directing the growth themselves. But prospects for expanded growth will likely energize a political opposition that has been numerically small and geographically scattered, but could soon gain many sympathizers, especially if the government is seen as actively suppressing newly-‘thawed’ economic aspirations.

We rarely use this blog space to comment on the evolution of bilateral arrangements.  But this ‘thaw’ has economic, social and even security implications beyond Cuba and the US.   The fact that the US is now ‘ready’ to move on normalized relations does not mean that the Cubans themselves are sufficiently prepared for what is to come.  Cuba will surely need some space — and assistance as well — to determine the levels of cultural and economic interventions it is able (or willing) to reasonably assimilate.

There are diverse and even hopeful opportunities here to be sure, but managing them sustainably will require a mix of vigilance, restraint and bold thinking.   Hopefully part of this ‘thaw’ will involve a return for many Cubans who had taken their talents elsewhere, though there is certainly a danger of a new social schism as ex-pats seek to reclaim property long since ‘redistributed’ to locals by the government.

The processes emanating from this ‘thaw’ are ones that should sustain our collective policy interest. Let’s see if the ‘thaw’ reveals instincts to reconciliation and not simply to profit.  Let’s see if a generation of government leaders committed primarily to protection of its citizens from the demons of “US imperialism” can make the transition to a more nuanced, participation-based control.  Let’s see which aspects of government management of national assets can survive new waves of aggressive investors.  Let’s see if many locals currently with more resourcefulness than tangible assets can avoid becoming victimized by a new potential iteration of the economically marginalized.   Let’s see how levels of political participation, especially for younger Cubans, are permitted to change across the country.  Let’s see if environmental protection can survive a construction boom.  Let’s see how many mistakes made by western economies the Cubans can find ways to avoid.

And let’s see if the UN is willing and able to offer and sustain full-spectrum services to keep the “thaw” from setting off a tsunami of bitterness, greed and broken promises. This is a test of the UN system’s ability to help manage state transitions across a spectrum of interests and concerns.  And Cuba is clearly now ‘officially’ a state in transition.   Whether that transition results in more fairness or more predation is partially in the UN’s hands, whether the UN wants it there or not.

The Cubans have a long legacy of competent, hard-nosed diplomats in New York.  Getting some of the most appropriate UN agencies more deeply involved in managing the social and economic impacts of the ‘thaw’ might require a ‘softer’ competence.   In any event, we wish all parties attentiveness and sensitivity in finding the right policy balances so that this long-overdue promise of ‘thaw’ can result in positive, tangible, sustainable consequences for Cuba’s people.

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