Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Cuba isn’t “open” just because the US says it is

Cuba isn't "open" just because the US says it is
Ellery Roberts Biddle
Advocacy Director, Global Voices
March 30, 2015

American television handyman Bob Vila is now in Cuba, so the island
nation must be opening up, right? Since last December's historic
announcement that the US and Cuba would re-establish diplomatic
relations, there has been a flurry of public speculation among US media
on what the changes will mean for tourism, immigration, business, and
Much of this has been predicated on the idea that the country is
"opening up," or that the Obama administration has somehow pried open
the iron cabana under which many Americans see­m to believe that Cuba
exists. A quick Google search on "Cuba" and "open" reveals headlines
like these:
"Cuba opens up more to U.S. travelers, trade"—Associated Press

"How will Obama's decision to open Cuba affect travel?"—Fox News
"Why Republicans should thank Obama for opening up Cuba"—PBS.org
Shortly after the news broke, the Daily Beast's Michael Moynihan pointed
out widespread eagerness among journalists and other public figures in
the US to visit Cuba "before McDonald's moves in." Twitter saw plenty of
speculation about the possibility of Starbucks, Walmart, and other US
commercial corporations setting up shop in Cuba over the coming months.
Laying aside the fact that the new legal terms remain largely
unresolved, it is curious that so many people see this as an "opening."
As a person who has spent long periods of time studying culture and
technology in Cuba, I can't accept the idea that the country was ever
"closed" in the way that so many US media outlets seem to imagine.

Cuba has a local population of 11 million citizens, but an additional
two million Cuban-born citizens live abroad, mainly in the United
States, Spain, Mexico and Germany. Despite some bureaucratic hurdles to
obtaining a passport, Cubans with the means to do so may travel
Internet access is limited but plenty of media is in circulation there,
thanks to a robust local cultural sector, a steady flow of visitors from
outside the country, and the use of mobile phones and pen drives to
store and exchange music, videos, and other media. Tourists come from
around the world to walk the beaches, hear the music, and yes, to marvel
at the mix of people, color, tropical flora and architectural decay of
Havana's streets.
It's true that to date, only a tiny fraction of the estimated 2 to 3
million tourists who visit each year have come from the US. But this is
not Cuba's doing—US citizens are as welcome there as anyone else. Until
recently, unless they were visiting family members, US citizens were all
but forbidden from traveling to Cuba. (Exceptions being a select group
of journalists, academics, and religious and humanitarian aid
workers—I've been through this process a few times, and it isn't easy.)
So when it comes to US-Cuba freedom of movement, if any country is
"closed," it is the US.
At the same time, Cuban society is still significantly restricted in
terms of speech, association, privacy, and economic rights. All major
media in Cuba is produced by state-owned institutions. While there are
independent websites run by Cubans, the dearth of Internet access makes
these relatively oblique in the face of mass-produced state newspapers
and radio broadcasts.

Regulations and omnipresent surveillance make large public gatherings or
demonstrations a difficult (though not impossible) feat. And the vast
majority of organizations large and small—ranging from street shops to
farms to universities—are owned and run by the state.
So those prospective travelers already waxing nostalgic for a Cuba
unspoiled by contemporary globalization should calm their nerves.
Although we can expect some shifts in trade and commercial relations
between the two countries, it is clear that the US is moving slowly on
this front. There is also no clear sign of reform in Cuba's economic
regulatory environment for foreign enterprise. In fact, under Cuban law,
any foreign company that wishes to do business on the island must enter
a subsidiary agreement, under which the Cuban government owns a minimum
of 51% of that company's holdings in Cuba.
In short, it is impossible for foreign companies to actually own their
own businesses there. Spanish companies such as the Meliá hotel chain
have launched brick and mortar businesses on the island with some
success over the last ten years, but they are presumably doing this
under these terms. Anyone who fears that the country will fall prey to
US companies is overestimating the power of foreign industry.
Like any other country, Cuba is not a monolith—there is a diverse range
of interests and priorities among the government and the people, to
which the current political system does not offer due voice. This new
chapter in US-Cuba relations will generate greater economic
opportunities for Cubans, if not more Starbucks franchises, as visitors
from the US will unquestionably bring greater flows of capital into the
But there is no indication that this will open up new avenues for Cuban
citizens to participate in or have meaningful impact on their country's
political processes. Just like anywhere else, this kind of change is not
something that can be brought about by another government, or a company,
or a civil society group from abroad. It will have to be the work of
Cubans themselves.
Follow Ellery on Twitter at @ellerybiddle. We welcome your comments
at ideas@qz.com.

Source: Cuba isn't "open" just because the US says it is - Quartz -

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