Today, the United States and Cuba opened embassies in each other’s country. For The Bahamas, this is significant.
Over the last seven or so months, an extraordinary level of interest has emerged in the accelerating engagement with Cuba. From the tourist who ‘wants to see it before it changes’, to governments concerned that their longer-term interests are protected.
For the most part, there is little realism, understanding, or any appreciation of the extent to which Cuba will continue to manage and control the process, seeking balanced relationships that also recognises those nations or organisations that have been supportive when times were difficult.
For this reason, some of the concerns being expressed in The Bahamas in recent months, about the possible economic threat posed by a changed Cuba-US relationship seem ill founded; saying more about the fragility of our economy and our dependence on tourism.
As was widely reported, Prime Minister Perry Christie, suggested, when opening the Caricom Heads of Government meeting in Nassau, several months ago, that we should consider taking action to neutralise any adverse impact that could result from the United States’ decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba.
That the comments came from our Prime Minister is hardly surprising as our proximity to the US makes it more likely than most Caribbean nations to suffer the immediate effect of any reduction in visitors as a result of the US decision to ease travel to Cuba.
However, there is also a sense in the wider world that companies, organisations and nations, especially The Bahamas, now need to move rapidly to ensure they are not economically or politically disadvantaged by the changing US policy.
In the case of Europe, for example, after a number of postponements, European Commission officials are now trying to accelerate exchanges that should lead to a first-ever framework political and development agreement with Cuba. French President Francois Hollande visited Cuba on May 11, reflecting France’s desire to play a central role in delivering an agreement with Europe, while protecting its economic interests.
And in April, following last year’s first British Ministerial visit to Havana in more than a decade, a large investment mission led by Lord Hutton, a former defence secretary and the chair of the UK’s bilateral Cuba Initiative, visited Cuba.
Others, too, including Russia, China, and Brazil, to say nothing of the large delegations of US senators, agriculturalists, hotel operators and investors, states such as New York, southern US cities vying with Miami to become the gateway, US airlines, and telecommunications and IT companies, are all in the process of seeking a long-term presence.
What is The Bahamas doing? After all, regionally,we were there for Cuba, when no one else, save Jamaica, was. This must count for something. I am somewhat disappointed that we haven’t heard of any private sector groupings announcing any initiatives that would seek to take advantage of the normalization of relations with Cuba, by the United States.
Despite this new-found enthusiasm for Cuba, the reality is that the process of engagement remains uncertain and will likely be slow in its implementation.
This is because fundamental differences continue to exist. Cuba is looking for an economic opening, and being left alone, while the US continues to seek a change in Cuban society and its governance. Moreover, the US trade embargo remains in place, enshrined in complex interlocking legislation.
It is also likely that Cuba will want to pace the process of engagement with the US once the first measures relating to dÈtente have been put in place. This is because it is undertaking a number of difficult interrelated structural reforms.
Cuba is about to undergo a generational change in its leadership. President Castro will step down in 2018; Cuba’s First Vice-president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is only just beginning to appear more frequently in the Cuban media, speaking on key policy issues of interest to the young, such as internet access, and has only just begun travelling abroad; the next Communist Party Congress is set for April 2016; electoral reform may be announced; and President Castro has proposed future term limits for top leadership positions in the government.
Cuba is also about to undertake the socially challenging process of causing its two official currencies to converge, as a part of its plans to create a more liberal and decentralised domestic economy.
Put more practically, the restoration of the two embassies will certainly create a basis for a serious long-term dialogue on issues such as terrorism, public health, counter-narcotics cooperation, the environment, offshore oil exploration, air routes, postal services and more.
While it is also possible to envisage that in the US, Cuba will become the new normal, much else will be slow and complicated and there will continue to be fundamental disagreements on political matters.
Therefore, a more realistic scenario, since the embargo will remain, is that there will be limited but tantalising economic advances for the US in agriculture, telecommunications, direct air services, and non-state trade, placing pressure on Congress for further change.
It is also reasonable to expect, despite the lifting of the state sponsor of terrorism designation, banks may be reluctant to be the first movers.
Lawyers will have a field day challenging the Office of Foreign Assets Control, and every other US department. The lobbyists will descend on Washington in force. The airlines, cruise ships, lawyers, agriculturalists, oil industry, telecoms, construction, and states other than Florida will call in their political support in Congress.
Some largely Republican hardliners in Congress, undercut by reality of commercial engagement, may gradually become more muted. Attitudes in south Florida and New Jersey will continue to change as opportunities emerge in Cuba for Cuban Americans and their families living in Cuba.
Human rights issues may be removed to a separate US-Cuba forum and Cuba will become less of an impediment to the US improving its hemispheric relations
There may also be a clash of cultural and moral values as new and complex issues emerge in relation to the internet and social media if the Cuban state sees its values eroded. And more prosaically, as Prime Minister Christie implied, US visitors will arrive in ever increasing numbers, making it harder to get a hotel room.
All and all, I do not, like so many of our citizens, see doom and gloom for The Bahamas. I see countless opportunities. We just need to be brave enough to grasp them.