Cuba has recognized that President Barack Obama has adopted positive measures to modify some aspects of the blockade and that high officials of his Administration have indicated that others are under study. “Nevertheless, it has not been possible to implement a good number of these measures, because of their limited scope, the persistence of other regulations and the intimidating effects of the blockade as a whole…”
The government of the US announced on four occasions since December 17th of 2014 (17D) –January and September 2015 and January and March 2016 –measures to relax the blockade imposed on Cuba with regard to travel, trade and commerce, financial transactions, operation of US companies, as well as the removal of limits to certain types of remittances.
Without renouncing our ideals, giving up our principles or allowing pressures to influence our internal affairs, as stated by President Raúl Castro, the four sets of measures decreed by the US government open possibilities for exchange that, notwithstanding their intentions, can be profitable for Cuba.
What can Cuba do to take advantage of these measures for its own benefit?
One of the principal aims of the new measures is to facilitate the expansion of US travel to Cuba based on the 12 categories authorized by the US government. In 2015, 453,925 US nationals arrived in Cuba, making the US the second country of origin of travelers, after Canada.
Cuba receives family visits from North Americans of Cuban origin since 1980 but the Obama measures have made possible their increase and diversity (in 2015 they amounted to 292,692). Assuming there is interest in enriching the relations of the nation with its émigrés and take advantage of their advances in foreign lands for the benefit of the country, the Cuban government could promote travel activities and programs aimed at uniting families and attracting young people of Cuban origin, such as summer camps, language and history courses and sports activities; encourage regional events that attract local natives and promote national and local identities; favor the contribution of technicians and professionals to their former places of employment and study, including the possibility of the return and reinsertion of those who wish to do so; enable elderly Cubans to retire here, offering them specialized services such as assisted living facilities– that can be managed by cooperatives or private workers – and medical insurance or preferential rates to access Cuban public health services, without necessarily extending them the free access enjoyed by residents.
With respect to US travelers that want to do commercial activities in Cuba, they are required to obtain a business visa for all official business: without it they cannot enter a State office or installation or be received by any official. But to obtain a business visa a State institution must request it in favor of the foreigner, which generates a vicious circle that greatly limits initial contacts and explorations potentially positive for both sides. The government should facilitate these meetings through flexible norms and practices, using, for example, the Chamber of Commerce as a meeting and exhibition space, and an entry point to institutions and enterprises, similar to what the International Press Center does for journalists.
The bottleneck that has been created with the increase in North American visitors without family ties in Cuba– 161,233 in 2015 – is due in part to the fact that only three ground operators - Amistur (ICAP), Havanatur (MINTUR) and San Cristóbal (OHCH) – are authorized to receive groups of North Americans. MINTUR should allow all national and international agencies authorized to operate in Cuba to provide services to US visitors as they do to other nationalities.
Another set of measures is designed to increase educational activities from the US in Cuba. This is an area in which the non-state sector could complement the State enterprises, organizing and providing educational activities to visitors from the US and other countries, in areas such as language learning, culture – dance, music, theater, arts and cinema – sports and ecotourism. In the interest of facilitating educational tourism by non-state and community providers, the State could offer spaces in fairs and conventions, allowing their inclusion in existing channels of tourist promotion and open up the possibility of creating Cuba-based marketing networks that combine State and non-state-provided services– lodging, food, excursions and educational activities.
The Obama regulations have increased the possibilities of sending remittances and donations of US nationals, whether of Cuban origin or not. Much could be done to take advantage of the space created in order to increase their volume and expand their benefits beyond the immediate family of the senders.
The first step should be greater transparency of the data and information about remittances that would allow researchers, scholars and journalists to analyze the flows of remittances and donations, their impact and potential. Similarly, it is worth noting that remittances play multiple roles, as contribution to family consumption, for housing construction and repair – contributing to the boom in the construction industry – and as private investment capital.
Remittances and “humanitarian” projects constitute opportunities for support of social programs and communities, for example, by creating funds for promoting initiatives and activities in places and institutions that can receive contributions from those who have roots there. Similar efforts can join together alumni from schools and universities, workers from certain companies, sports fans, etc.
Also worth considering is the possibility of encouraging social projects funded by private US donations. The approval process in Cuba for donations and projects, wherever they may originate, from institutions or individual donors, is extremely bureaucratic and tiresome, as both donors and beneficiaries can bear witness. Frequently we meet foreigners who want to make a donation to a worthy institution or project that they visit, but they find it impossible to do so due to controls and regulations that are dissuasive in nature. The best response of the Cuban government to the potential boom in international cooperation from private US sources that can result from these measures, is to streamline the process of approval and management for all.
We should be proactive in taking advantage, in pursuit of local development, of the opportunities that the new US regulations have opened up for implementing heritage preservation projects, employing for this end mechanisms such as the Network of Heritage Cities, associations of descendants of towns and places, sister cities, aficionados of history, architecture, antiques, etc..
Another category of regulations is aimed at promoting relationships between US and Cuban civil societies. If we dare to see this as an opportunity and not a threat, we could reap political benefits – as a result of the positive knowledge of Cuban reality that will spread directly and indirectly in the US – and economic and social benefits – resulting from the resource contribution that these contacts and activities can generate.
Another opportunity lies in allowing Cuban civil society organizations and local governments, in a decentralized manner, to partner with US foundations and NGO in humanitarian projects and activities, as long as the funds come from private sources. The State can facilitate platforms for meetings of civil organizations from each country, by area: educational, environmental, sports, cultural, religious, youth, community, gender, etc.; and take advantage of the possibilities of the January 2016 regulations that allow for consideration of requests to export US goods and services to Cuban NGO in order to “strengthen Cuban civil society”.
Insofar as commercial relations go, we can make the most of US regulations aimed at expanding authorization for export and import of goods and services in favor of the Cuban economy, in particular of its consumers and non-state producers. Those regulations are aimed at supporting the private sector engaged in construction, agriculture, small industry and services. The cooperatives, which for Cuba are part of the social economy, from the US point of view are “private businesses”, and would therefore be included.
The Cuban State could respond positively to these opportunities creating mechanisms for importing and trading those products and services recently authorized, without sacrificing control, by establishing, for example, a specialized importer/exporter, a free zone where these products can be sold, financial instruments to facilitate credits to buyers, etc.
Similarly, it could promote the export to the US of goods and services produced by the non-state sector and access to technologies and markets, both of which would generate income for the country.
A particular opportunity that we are not taking advantage of is the export of software and applications produced by Cuban computer specialists, because they lack government support. The State could promote decentralized commercial contacts, platforms and mechanisms that will allow private ITs and cooperatives – yet to be approved - to export computer and information technologies and services, in particular to the US, and collect payment and taxes for these exports. Among other benefits, this would retain hundreds if not thousands of professionals that are emigrating for lack of competitive jobs and opportunities in the country.
Often travelers from the US say that they cannot take full advantage of the U$400 maximum of imports from Cuba because they have little to buy beyond the $100 of alcohol and tobacco products permitted. The State, though institutions such as the Fondo de Bienes Culturales, the Artisans and Artists Association, Local Industries, as well as travel agencies and local governments, could do much more to promote quality artistic and handicraft productions, aimed at a more sophisticated tourist than that which flocks street fairs and markets. FONACULT in México is a perfect example.
Little or nothing has been said publicly about the new regulation (January 2016) that allows for case-by-case exceptions to exports from the US to enterprises and other State institutions for the non-profit provision of goods and services that benefit the population. This includes exports of items for agricultural production, artistic cultural and preservation endeavors, education, food processing, disaster preparedness, relief and response, public health and sanitation, residential construction and renovation, public transportation, facilities for treating public water supplies and for supplying electricity or other energy, sports and recreation facilities, and other infrastructure; and export of products for domestic consumption. This could be an opportunity to reduce import costs of products currently purchased in other markets and, combined with an active promotion of donations, increase the overall provision of these goods and services to the population.
The January 2016 regulations permit transactions directly related to “professional media or artistic productions, including the filming or production of media programs (such as movies and television programs); music recordings; and the creation of artworks in Cuba.” Entities such as ICAIC, RTV Comercial and the Association of Audiovisual Producers could benefit from this opportunity to convert Cuba into an attractive location for these productions, thereby competing favorably with other settings such as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, among other reasons, due to the existence of competent audiovisual professionals and technicians and of experienced State and independent producers. This could be combined with the possibility of importing equipment and materials for use in these productions, which would increase the stock and improve existing technologies in the country. In these circumstance it is also possible to consider joint productions with the US as is already done with other countries.
The modernization of the Cuban economic model began long before the process of normalization of relations with the US. The approval of the Guidelines (2011) re-launched Cuban socialism on new bases. These include: “Recognizing and promoting the development of non-state formulas of managing property, and different actors in the economy; Assign the predominant role to the socialist state enterprise, strong and well organized...; Expand the exercise of self-employment and its use as another alternative for employment that will help increase the supply of goods and services.”
To take advantage of the measures enacted by the Obama government to ease the blockade of Cuba, in pursuit of the objectives established by the Party and the Revolution, in order to increase economic efficiency, growth and development, would be another expression of national independence and sovereignty, of Cuba’s strength and creativity.