The American Berlin Wall in Cuba

In 1959, a revolution took place in Cuba. Shortly thereafter, the new leader, Fidel Castro announced that he would convert Cuba to communism. The following year, the US government placed an embargo on Cuba that remains to this day.

During the Cold War, most of the world respected America's reason for the embargo, although they considered it rather extreme. Then, with the collapse of the USSR, the world collectively concluded that the embargo was not only unnecessary, but absurd and even non-humanitarian. For the last nineteen years, annual resolutions have been passed at the UN, condemning the embargo. In almost every case, all of the member nations have voted in favour of lifting the embargo except the US and Israel.

What many Americans may not know is that, internationally, the embargo has been referred to as "America's Berlin Wall." This seems never to have been reported in the US, perhaps because it is so accurate. This appellation suggests that the US, in retaining the embargo, is as oppressive as the old Soviet Union was in its treatment of its neighbour. Quite so, and possibly that explains why it has been kept out of the American press.

So, why does the embargo continue? The American government states that its purpose is to keep Cuba from being able to obtain American goods, as punishment to the Cuban government for a brutal dictatorship. While Americans seem largely to accept this explanation, it is not at all true. While it is illegal for an American to visit Cuba, if he could visit, he would find that most goods on the shelves in Cuba come from Central and South America. But then, this is true for other Latin American countries as well (Spanish-speaking countries tend to buy from each other as communication is easy.)

However, there is no shortage of American goods in Cuba. Coca Cola, in particular, is very popular, even though Cuba produces its own brand of cola. Where does the Coke come from? Like other US products, Cuba gets this product from Mexico, where it is also popular. (Mexico and Cuba are trading partners and Cuba simply purchases all the American goods it wishes from Mexico.)

Therefore, there is no true trade embargo.

This condition has been the norm for decades and it is highly doubtful that it is unknown to the US government, so why the ruse? What purpose does the "embargo" serve? Well, an early purpose of the embargo, established under the Kennedy administration, was to prevent the USSR from shipping missiles to Cuba. Eventually, of course, the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved peacefully, but the embargo remained.

Since the 1960's, the Miami Cubans have strongly supported its continuance, stating that it should not be lifted until they could return to their homeland to reclaim their country. To emphasize their belief, they began making major contributions to both the Democratic and Republican parties to support their wishes. Those contributions have been considerable and continue to the present day.

To be sure, the business class of Cuba were given a raw deal by the Castro regime in 1960 and, while they chose to leave rather than give up their wealth, their property in Cuba should be returned to them, even at this late date. However, it is quite apparent that the embargo is not getting them any closer to their goal. It only serves to deprive Americans of a rather interesting place to visit.

In the meantime, because Americans are not permitted to travel to Cuba, the only understanding most Americans have of the country is dependent upon US government information, which is influenced by the Miami Cubans. Predictably, the information is not terribly favourable. The picture Americans have is of a brutal dictatorship; that any Cuban who questions the Castro regime is thrown into some Cuban gulag, never to be seen again.

Not so. While crime is admittedly dealt with forcefully in Cuba, the average Cuban has the freedom to complain about his government without having to look over his shoulder. Generally speaking, the police are less aggressive than, say, American police, and Cuba is run like a rather large family. Life is fairly spartan, by First-World standards, but the average Cuban does have a small amount of disposable income.

Most homes have a TV and, while Cubans can view American television programmes, few Cubans yearn for an American way of life (since they believe that, along with the luxuries comes avarice, which they fear will return them to the Batista years.) Most Cubans seem to wish for "alguno mas," a little bit more, not sweeping change.

Every now and then, an article appears regarding Cuba. In most cases, these articles are quite inaccurate. A notable exception to this rule is an article published by Casey Research on 25th October, entitled, "Offshore Oil and the Politics of Cuba." The article deals primarily with the start-up of an oil industry for Cuba, but its peripheral information is also quite accurate.

So, what is it really like in Cuba?

Well, following the collapse of the USSR, tourism was established in a much bigger way, and an attempt was made to have capitalistic tourism live alongside agrarian communism. Naturally, it was not possible to keep them separate, and soon most people who could get a job in tourism took it eagerly. (In the eighties, I met a University professor in Havana who left his job in favour of one as a guide on a tourist bus. He was able to earn more in tips on one ride than he could in a week as a professor.) Over the years, Cuba has become increasingly capitalistic and the present leader, Raul Castro, has stated that his goal is for private enterprise to represent one-third of the economy by 2015. New laws allow Cubans to own their own cars and property.

For most members of International Man, Cuba remains largely off the radar. Understandably, it must remain so for Americans, as it is still illegal to travel there. However, for those of other nationalities, should it be a consideration?

On the plus side, Cuba has beautiful weather year round, assuming you are not overly fond of snow. The countryside is quite beautiful, though undeveloped, and some areas like the Vinales Valley are exceptional. There are a few old towns, like Trinidad, that could one day become vibrant historic districts, but are now sleepy communities. Most of Havana looks mostly like it did in the 50's, except that it has become run down.

However, Habana Vieja, the old city, is filled with buildings from the 17th to 19th centuries - a truly architecturally beautiful small city that is now undergoing a complete renovation, building by building. Most of the main plazas have been completed, and in the evening, a resident may sit in a café on one side of a plaza and listen to classical music being played, then stroll to the other side of the plaza to hear a Cuban folk group play.

Rum is as popular as ever and, while the restaurants that created the daiquiri and the mojito are still in business, these and other drinks are available everywhere, as are, of course, Cuban cigars. They can be purchased on every block, or straight from the factories that produce them. There are also small cigar-makers' benches in every hotel lobby, where you can have your preferred shape custom-made.

Another nice surprise is that Cuba is largely crime-free, even in Havana. Women with babies in strollers have no reluctance to be out well after dark in the parks. The windows of first-floor apartments are commonly left open, yet there is little theft. One of the benefits of communism has been that there is no real upward mobility; hence, minimal avarice. Everyone already has a TV. No need to steal another one. (I hasten to say that I have no love for communism, but, at least in Cuba, it has had a few positive bi-products.)

At one time the hotels were quite inexpensive, but this is no longer so. Most are now about the price of a Holiday Inn and, while they may be in old, historic buildings, they are likely to be a bit shabbier than in First World countries. Even the one "Five Star" hotel, the Nacional, seems a bit dated.

Then, there's the beaches, which are extensive and have numerous hotels, many of them foreign-owned. This is a growing trend.

Downside? First, there's really not much to do. It's a fairly lazy place and there is little ambition to create commerce, although there is ample opportunity for new types of businesses. In the future, Cuba will open up as a major new attraction for both business and tourism, but that may be five to ten years off.

In the meantime, it's an interesting place to visit, but probably not to expatriate. Business opportunities are limited to small ventures for Cubans only, or large projects by foreign firms - with little in between. If you are, say, a Canadian or German, there is presently no opportunity for you to open, for example, a restaurant or a boutique.

Another downside is the fairly low standard of living, by First World standards. Most construction is old (pre-sixties) and is shabby. A further deterrent is that foreigners may not generally own property; so, it is not possible to buy an old mansion cheaply and fix it up. Until recently, all such properties belonged to the state. This is now changing and, as more property is turned over to the public, a real estate industry (and increased foreign ownership) cannot be far behind.

Cuba is a marvellous country that is waiting to be reborn. It may be a poor choice for retirees and is also a poor choice (at present) for those in the middle of their careers. However, for this latter group, it is an excellent place to visit and get to know. As the old guard passes (Fidel is in his eighties and in poor health; Raul may only be in place as long as Fidel lives), the laws will change and opportunity will be the order of the day.

The greatest opportunities will be had at this time, while Cuba is still a bit tatty but the future is opening up. There will be a short window of opportunity (say five to ten years) when those who have already invested the time to familiarise themselves with Cuba will be able to make their moves as soon as the laws change. When that happens, Cuba will be a profitable and fascinating place to be.

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