Sunday, September 19, 2010

Changes in Cuba offer opportunities

Changes in Cuba offer opportunities
In Print: Monday, September 20, 2010

Cuba's president, Raul Castro, was hardly launching a counter-revolution
last week with word that the socialist island nation would spin off
one-tenth of the government's work force to the private sector. Castro
was simply being practical; that is useful at times for retaining power.
Cuba is in dire straits and a thriving black market saps too much cash
from the state-run economy. But the move creates an opportunity for
Cubans to build better lives. And it creates an opening for the United
States to push democratic reform through expanded trade and travel.

Castro said the government would dismiss 500,000 workers by April, with
the goal of creating nearly that many jobs — 450,000 — in the private
sector by the end of 2011. Leave aside whether Cuba can meet that goal;
it certainly cannot continue to employ 85 percent of the workforce in
the public sector. Castro said earlier this year the state had 1 million
people on the payroll it could live without. Moving even half that
number to the private market poses enormous challenges to a bureaucracy
and culture that lack the tools industry needs — from tax incentives to
access to capital — for business to function.

Still, Castro has taken another step away from the centralized economy
since taking over from his sickened brother, Fidel, in 2006. Raul Castro
has already leased state lands for private farming, scaled back controls
on small businesses and allowed some mom-and-pop shops, such as barbers,
to form cooperatives. The government is also relaxing restrictions on
long-term leasing of state land by foreigners, which is aimed at
attracting investors in new condominium and golf course developments.
Castro has liberalized the economy in uneven ways, but it all builds on
the entrepreneurial spirit.

The Obama administration moved relations with Cuba in a positive
direction by relaxing the punitive restrictions on trade and travel that
President George W. Bush imposed. The president should go further by
making it possible to take direct flights to Cuba from beyond Miami, New
York and Los Angeles, the only three U.S. cities where service is
legally allowed. Direct flights to and from Tampa International Airport
make sense, given the city's proximity and historical ties to Cuba.
Washington should also relax financial restrictions on agricultural
trade with Cuba. That could bring big business to the Port of Tampa, and
mark a major step toward ending the overall trade embargo.

The Castro brothers have made it clear after five decades in power that
change will come slowly in Cuba. But the United States has a
responsibility and security and economic interests in preparing for life
after Castro. That period cannot be too far away.

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