Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Cuban Dissident Supports Travel


A prominent dissident argues from a perspective quite hostile to Cuba’s government that US travel restrictions should be ended.

I found this story in an excellent new blog from Phil Peterson of the Lexington Institute,

In contradiction to Chepe’s thesis that Havana has cooled on tourism, Phil also reports on plans for dramatically expanded Cuban investment in tourist infrastructure ($320 million) and for increased numbers of flights.

--John McAuliff

El Pais, Madrid, May 7, 2007

With the loss of the subsidies from the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries
in the late 1980s, the Cuban Government had no other recourse but to accept tourism
as one of its principal sources of foreign currency. Up to that time it had vetoed the
development of this lucrative activity, despite Cuba’s noteworthy conditions for
development of the so-called smokeless industry.

The considerations for rejecting tourism were based on fear of the “ideological
contamination” that would come with the visitors from democratic countries. It must
be recalled that, in the mentality of the totalitarian Cuban leaders, the ideal of society
would be a totally isolated Cuba, free of any contamination and examples that might
jeopardize the absolute power. Their phobia of the Internet, cell phone, DVD,
videocassettes, and their raids to persecute those who surreptitiously see and hear
foreign TV were not for fun.

In the case of international tourism, although they had to swallow the bitter pill of
allowing it, reluctantly, they always intended to pull back and, if not completely stop
the activity, at least slow its development or reduce it by a percentage, which would
enable them to manage the visitors more easily, using tourism packages taken to
places with little contact with Cubans, in cays or regions such as Varadero, where the
nationals are present only as servants. A Caribbean version of apartheid.

The foregoing could explain now the considerable decrease in the number of people
who visit the Island and the scant advertising seen nationally about the activity which,
for some years, was called the engine of the Cuban economy. Thus, the figures show a
considerable reduction recently. In 2006, arrivals dropped by 3.6%, a trend which
continued in January and February 2007, with declines of 7.0% and 13.0%,
respectively; decisive months in the high season for Cuban tourism.

To explain this situation, the international operators point to a lack of investment in
advertising and infrastructure. To that could be added an absurd, approximately
20.0% revaluation of the convertible peso in relation to the US dollar, taking into
consideration the 10.0% tax and the exchange fees imposed by the Central Bank of
Cuba against that currency, as well as the effect on other currencies, including the
Euro, in the amount of 8.0%. All that done arbitrarily and without taking into account
real economic considerations, including price increases for tourism services.
These factors are not the only ones. One would have to add the recentralization of the
Cuban economy in recent years, with a view to strengthening the role of the State,
which has resulted in slow decision making by companies and, consequently,
increased inefficiency, because the entities do not have, among other things, their own
resources in hard currency.

Certainly all these measures have not been aimed solely against tourism. The joint
ventures with foreign capital have been drastically reduced. In late 2006 there were
just 236, as compared to 313 in 2004, according to official reports. In this respect,
action has been taken against self-employment, with many of the permitted
occupations being cancelled, new permits not being issued for several authorized
occupations, or prohibitions and new taxes on persons with licenses; all of which has
resulted in a decrease in the number of self-employed individuals, including people
who rent apartments and rooms to foreigners.

Clearly, this entire policy is the result of the fact that, a new Soviet Union having
appeared through Venezuela’s subsidies, totalitarianism feels more economically
secure and wants to take advantage of this situation to close the small spaces opened
in the 1990s, including the risky – to them – international tourism, a strategy aimed at
again assuming absolute political control over society.

In these circumstances, the mechanisms established by the U.S. authorities, aimed at
isolating Cuban society from contact with its citizens, and even with Cuban-
Americans, are counterproductive and incomprehensible. In fact, it is aligned with the
policy always promoted by the Cuban Government, of keeping the people on the
Island isolated from any outside contact. The only sensible thing that could help the
Cuban people is what was done in Eastern Europe and later in China and Viet Nam,
where the ties between the peoples were fostered and continue to be fostered, with
unquestionable success.

One would hope that, with the new balance of power in the U.S. Congress and Senate
[sic], there will be more understanding of this matter, and that there will be a radical
change in the policy toward Cuba, especially because Cuba-U.S. relations are vital for
the democratic transition in Cuba. A climate of tension and suspicion in the Straits of
Florida has always been very helpful to the interests of the most change-resistant
sector of the Cuban Government.

So, the proposals made recently by Representatives Jeff Flake, Bill Delahunt, Mrs.
Emerson, and Charles Rangel, among other important U.S. legislators, all made with
great common sense and which, if approved, would doubtless significantly benefit
efforts on behalf of a democratic, reconciled Cuba, where human rights are respected,
are essential to Cubans.

Oscar Espinosa Chepe is a Cuban economist and journalist.

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