Thursday, May 22, 2014

Charlie Crist’s Cuba Gambit

Charlie Crist's Cuba Gambit
The onetime (and future?) Florida governor makes a daring move.
By CHRIS SABATINI May 21, 2014

A decade ago, a declaration by a Florida gubernatorial candidate that he
wanted to travel to Cuba would have been political suicide, the kind of
self-inflicted wound that ruins careers. Florida houses nearly 1 million
Cuban-Americans, many of whom fled Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959 and
in the repressive years that followed.

So what are we to make of Charlie Crist's recent announcement that he
might be considering a summer trip to Havana? Crist, a former Republican
governor and now a Democrat seeking to oust incumbent Rick Scott, would
seem to be deliberately sabotaging his campaign. He's even making noises
about lifting the embargo, long a no-no in Florida politics. So is Crist

Not really. Thanks to changes on both sides of the Florida Straits,
Crist's plans no longer seem outrageous. In fact, they show just how
much the state has changed in the 50-odd years since Castro first took

President Barack Obama provided the first clues to the changing politics
of Cuba when he won Florida in 2008 without any of the usual pandering
to hard-line anti-Castro voters. Florida had, after all, voted
Republican in 2004 and was the key to George W. Bush's election in 2000.
In 2012, Obama won the state, albeit barely, despite his decision early
in his first term to overturn Bush-era rules that limited the travel of
Cuban-Americans to Cuba and placed a ceiling on family remittances to
the island. The move caused barely a ripple of opposition in Miami and
was even openly welcomed in some quarters; the Bush reforms, intended to
starve the Castro regime of much-needed hard currency, were unpopular
among many younger Cuban-Americans. Unlike the generation of
Cuban-Americans who arrived in Miami shortly after the Cuban revolution
(with the fire of revenge in their bellies), many of these new
immigrants retained close ties to families and friends on the island — a
key reason why Obama was able to take a majority of the state's
Cuban-American vote.

Obama's changes also unleashed a wave of communication and connection
with the island that hadn't occurred since the 1950s. Last year alone,
there were 400,000 trips between the United States and the
once-forbidden island. Among those were approximately 100,000 citizens
traveling under people-to-people licenses, which allow educational and
cultural travel to Cuba, a policy Obama re-established and expanded in 2011.

At the same time, changes were taking place inside Cuba. After
succeeding his 87-year-old brother, Fidel — first temporarily in 2006
when he fell ill with diverticulitis and then officially in 2008, the
sprier 82-year-old Raúl Castro set in slow motion a series of modest
reforms intended to inject minor market incentives into the Cuban
economy. These included allowing Cubans to form their own small
businesses in 300 categories determined by the state and permitting
farmers to pool their holdings and to farm unused state land to produce
for the now-legal private agricultural market. As a result, according to
a Brookings Institution study, over 450,000 non-state businesses —
cuentapropistas — are active in socialist Cuba in areas such as
restaurants, computer repair shops, taxis and beauty salons. A
capitalist revolution this was not. But Raúl's reforms represent the
first openings in the state-led economy and have given enterprising
Cubans a degree of economic freedom, not to mention, for the Cubans who
have come to rely on them, better access to food and services.

The problem is that the gerontocratic, personalistic Cuban regime sees
the reforms, in Raúl Castro's words as a means to "update the country's
[socialist] economic model." As a result, the aging socialist reformers
never made provisions for access to capital or wholesale goods for these
new entrepreneurs in the laws. This is where relatives and friends
across the Florida straits have helped. Much of the capital and inputs
for these cuentapropistas has come from the United States.


Take one of the dozens of charter flights that leave the United States
to Cuba every day now, and at the ticket counter you will queue up
behind Cuban-Americans loaded up with cappuccino makers, refrigerators,
car parts, boxes of food and many of the other appliances and inputs
necessary to sustain the emerging small and medium enterprises in Cuba.
A trip around Miami in the section of Hialeah — where more recent
arrivals have settled as opposed to the famous Calle Ocho, home to the
famous cafes and restaurants of the older Cuban arrivals — reveals
bargain department stores that sell industry-size nail polish remover
and shampoo, nurses uniforms, Lada (the famously clunky Russian car
manufacturer, whose cars the Cuban government still uses in its fleet)
parts and cellphones that vendors proudly advertise they can rig to work
in Cuba. Travel agencies and offices that wire remittances to families
and friends dot the strip malls in the neighborhood. There are even
pharmacies that accept prescriptions written in Cuba.

Chris Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior
director of policy of Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

Source: Charlie Crist's Cuba Gambit - Chris Sabatini - POLITICO Magazine

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