Will the U.S. Be Last in Line in Building a New Cuba?

 Will the U.S. Be Last in Line in Building a New Cuba?

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This past weekend the Communist Party in Cuba approved a set of reforms that will increase the ease by which Cubans can engage in private business and looks at ways to attract foreign investment to boost the nation’s nascent tourist industry. Guided by Raúl Castro, who formally took over the job of president from his more famous brother Fidel, Cuba is inching along a path taken by other Communist nations like China and Vietnam. The words “market” and “private enterprise” are not yet in the Cuban legal lexicon but without doubt they are now becoming part of the economic landscape on this island, one of the last bastions of Soviet-style communism.

These changes, as small as they may be, ought to cause the United States to reexamine its policy towards Cuba, especially in regards to its travel restrictions on Americans. Walk around Havana these days, as I did on a recent trip, and you will hear French, German, Danish, Swedish, Italian, Portuguese, and English, though not its Yankee version. Havana is shaking off its drab Soviet veneer and becoming a major tourist destination and the United States is missing the boat as well as a unique opportunity to shape Cuba’s future.

More than 1 million tourists visited Cuba so far this year, a 10 percent growth over last year, according to government figures for the first quarter. At Le Monde à Paris International Tourism Fair in France last month, the Cuban government launched a five-city French publicity blitz in a nation that already sends some 80,000 tourists to Cuba each year.

Tourism, particularly in Havana, is helping fuel a dramatic growth in private enterprise. For instance, the money I spent for my lodging did not go to one of the state-owned hotels. Rather I stayed in one of hundreds of casa particulares, the name given to houses in which families have recently been granted permission by the government to rent out rooms to foreigners. The best restaurants in Havana are now private enterprises known as paladares. In fact, they have become so successful that the government is reorganizing its production of bread to keep up with demand.

It is estimated that nearly 10,000 people have opened private restaurants and cafes in Havana alone and the government continues to grant licenses every day for new enterprises. In the many neighborhoods in which I walked, I saw stalls selling used and new plumbing supplies, DVDs and CDs, barber shops, watch repair services, and I even spotted a stand providing lice treatment for children in a nation that boasts of free health care.

If the United States were to find the courage to loosen its draconian travel restrictions on its citizens, the action could provide valuable support for this wave of entrepreneurship. Cuba may be on the verge of following the example of capitalistic Vietnam and China. Inaction on our part would be a lost opportunity. American tourist travel to Cuba today would support the very kind of change the U.S. government seeks.

It is in the interest of both the United States and Cuba that the Cuban economic reforms toward a more market-oriented economy succeed, according to a new report from the conservative Cuban Study Group in Washington D.C. “For this reason it is crucial that U.S. policymakers consider the implications of U.S. restrictions on the economic reform process. Through its own comprehensive sanctions, and by denying Cuba access to multilateral institutions, U.S. policies make it even more difficult for Cuban leaders to enact the type of economic reforms that the U.S. has urged for decades,” according to the report.

Sadly, the Obama administration is once again giving more thought to Cuban voters in the critically important state of Florida than to future generations of Cubans seeking to emulate our system of economics. In recent days, the administration refused to permit Irish American musicians to attend the Celtic Festival in Cuba. The festival, now in its second year, was created by Ireland’s Kilian Kennedy when, during a vacation, he stumbled upon a Cuban Celtic community sustained by descendants from Gaelic provinces of northern Spain.

His citizen-to-citizen musical diplomacy is exactly the kind of program that the United States should be supporting not thwarting. Opening up travel could permit us to flood the island with tourists bringing a virtual army of people-to-people ambassadors into contact with day-to-day Cubans.

As an endless number of Cubans repeatedly told me during my two-week stay on the island, the 50-year old dispute is between our two governments not the people. Bringing our citizens together would go a long way in undermining the repressive regime that has ruled Cuba for 53 years. After all, we have much in common with the Cubans: We drive Lincolns, Fords, Chevrolets, and have the same consuming passion for what they call Pelota, and we call baseball.

James McGrath Morris, a Santa Fe-based writer, visited Cuba for two weeks this spring.