History was made today with the visit by U.S. President Obama, the first visit by a President to Cuba in 88 years. Certainly this will bring significant economic and social change for Cuba.
How do we know this? It was not just President Obama visiting Cuba. In his delegation were some of America’s key business leaders, with the CEOs of Marriott Hotels, Starwood Hotels, Airbnb and Paypal joining him, among others. It’s hard not to imagine that Starbucks, McDonalds and Walmart won’t be far behind.
Is this good for Cuba? I’ve been to the island many times, and just had the opportunity to visit in early March 2016. Cuba’s economy clearly needs help. Despite a rich tradition of agriculture, Cuba must still import 80% of its food. A majority of its labour force is employed by the public sector. 90% of its energy is produced by fossil fuels – You can smell the sharp odour of the oil-burning electricity plant in Matanzas. Tourism only replaced sugar as the largest industry in the mid-1990’s¹.
To Cuba’s credit, when Raul Castro became President in 2010, he started implementing more liberal economic reforms in 2011. Cubans can now buy, sell or rent real estate. 3G cel phone & data coverage is widely available. It is now easier for Cubans to travel and there are more incentives for non-public sector employment.
There is still something timeless and special about Cuba. The ubiquitous pre-1959 cars, the 19th century colonial architecture, the vast stretches of miles of undeveloped, natural beaches, and of course the wide availability of good quality rum, cigars and coffee.
The trick for Cuba will be to accomplish something unprecedented: The improvement of its social development and quality of life, without capitulating to the materialistic, consumption-based capitalism that grips the rest of North America. Make no mistake, a consumer-based economy can generate positive strides in standard of living. It would just be a pity if it resulted in Cuba losing its rich culture, its natural ecosystems and quaint, colonial charm.
Mike Chopowick – March 20, 2016
“Cuba’s Economy”, GlobalSecurity.org, 2015.