Thursday 16 April 2009

Trade better than tourists for Cubans

In announcing a relaxation of the ban on some Americans travelling to Cuba, President Obama has made a significant step in beginning to create a better relationship between the two nations. Americans should be able to visit their neighbour and realise it is not the bogeyman it has often been portrayed as in US history books and journals.
But by relaxing just the travel, and not the trade ban, the risk is that this will help create a two-tier society where a few rich people benefit from tourism receipts, and the majority of Cubans do not see any benefit at all.
Pulling up trade barriers to Cuba would have a far greater benefit to wider society, bringing new and cheaper goods to its shores, and allowing Cubans to start selling their goods in US stores, and bringing financial benefits to more people. In effect, allowing Cubans to enter the same markets as their Caribbean neighbours, and hopefully, bringing improvements to the lives of many.
There has always been a progressive argument for an open market and this should be made to both societies right now. To the Cuban government it should be argued that its citizens should be allowed to travel freely outside its borders and to increase their economic and other rights; and to the Obama government which believes in openness - then consider the benefits of being able to Cuba and to the US of being able to buy and sell each others goods.
Cuba and America have a very special relationship. For decades that tiny channel between the two countries has been a prohibited zone; no trade; no aid and little communication.
While during these decades ordinary people in Cuba have struggled to get the basics of food and life, across the water the pro-Republican Cuban American lobby has exerted a massive amount of pressure on the US government not to change its position of throwing a huge barrier to the movement of trade and transport of people across that length of sea.
The US is Cuba's natural trading partner, a big well-off country on its doorstep, where Cubans could have bought supplies and provisions, but since 1962 they have been unable to do so.
That country was circled by a massive trade embargo for reasons that were superficially about democracy, but actually about political challenge, and historical embarrassment.
For although Cuba continued to have an anti-democratic government, and restrict the rights of its citizens, other countries - such as Saudi Arabia and China - with these same values were accepted as trading partners of the US.
In effect Cuba society has been timelagged in the 1960s, and DIY skills of make-do and patch have kept its basic goods and services struggling on.
When European tourists have visited and admired the stunning shapes of the sharks and finned 1950s American cars still plying the streets of Havana, there have often lacked understanding of why that these are newest cars available to many Cubans. They are souvenirs from the 1950s when Havana was dominated by US goods and services and was the playground of rich Americans who came to fish, gamble and sip cocktails.
Operating these pastel-coloured stunning shark and fins style cars was not about history or style, just about necessity.
For the last decade the rest of the world has wondered why the US was so fixated on Cuba, refusing to allow travel or trade with this nation, and in 1996 trying to stop other nations' commerce with Cuba as well.
Cubans have struggled in poverty because of this ridiculously unfair exclusion zone that the Americans imposed on their relations with this small Caribbean island.
Freeing Cubans from unfair economic barriers would be a greater step forward and one which would mark out Obama as someone who really can make change happen.

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