Business World

Friday 23 March 2018

US will invade Cuba with Starbucks. And that's something to be welcomed

Local Cubans on the streets of historic, but crumbling, Havana
Local Cubans on the streets of historic, but crumbling, Havana

David Blair

Former Cuban president Fidel Castro was surely guilty of the single most irresponsible act in human history. At the height of the Cuban missile crisis, he dispatched a letter to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev urging an immediate nuclear strike on the United States.

"However harsh and terrible such a decision would be, there is no other way out, in my opinion," read the missive on October 27, 1962. "With fraternal greetings, Fidel Castro."

At that perilous moment, when US President John F. Kennedy placed the odds on nuclear war at "20 chances out of 100", Castro's "fraternal" advice might actually have triggered, well, the end of the world. Fortunately, Khrushchev was wise enough to ignore his comrade - and consequently a Cuban embassy was re-established in Washington last Monday, opening its doors in the capital that Castro had wanted his ally to incinerate.

Later this summer, the US mission in Havana will become a full embassy and the story will turn full circle: America and Cuba, the implacable duo whose rivalry launched a thousand crises large and small, will become normal neighbours again.

Once the octogenarian Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, are removed from the scene and their homeland is flooded with tourists and investment, then Cuba will come to resemble much of the rest of the world.

Instead of being a socialist theme park, complete with vintage cars, charmingly run-down colonnades and strict controls on the internet, the island will be a new market for Starbucks and other emblems of consumerism.

That prospect will cause many hearts to sink. When the pointless US embargo is swept away, Cuba will revert to being just another Caribbean island. Without the two Castros, their former domain will be a country rather than a cause, deprived of its veneer of revolutionary chic.

But no one should dread this outcome; on the contrary, it should be a cause of rejoicing. After all, there is nothing more patronising than the Western visitor who wants the people of some moth-eaten authoritarian state to live in conformity with a popular image, no matter how poverty-stricken or soul-destroying that reality happens to be.

The people of Cuba are not obliged to inhabit a socialist timewarp because some Westerners, who enjoy freedom and plenty themselves, savour the supposed romance of their plight. Everything that certain visitors find most enticing about Cuba involves a terrible price.

There is one simple test of a country's happiness: are people trying to get in, or get out? With no opportunity to remove Castro in free elections, hundreds of thousands of Cubans have voted with their feet - or rather their paddles - by travelling across the 90 miles of ocean to Florida.

Their supposedly benign leader responded with infantile fits of rage. Take the "Mariel Boatlift" in 1980 when at least 125,000 people left from the port of Mariel in a few months.

Castro's media denounced them as "criminals, lumpen and anti-social elements, loafers and parasites." Later, about 10,000 Cubans sought asylum in the grounds of the Peruvian Embassy. Castro duly called them "scum" and the party organised protests outside their homes.

In fairness, the Castro era was not devoid of advances. Universal education and full employment were both achieved in the teeth of America's blockade. Meanwhile, infant mortality fell to seven per 1,000 live births, compared with 30 in the Caribbean as a whole.

Long before the thaw with America, Cuba had begun cautious economic reforms, induced by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The sudden disappearance of preferential trading rights and Moscow's annual payment of at least $4bn wiped out a third of Cuba's economy between 1989 and 1993. Nonetheless, the Castros managed to preserve their state welfare system.

But the boat people still fled to Florida and, far away, Castro's revolutionary foreign policy inflicted death and suffering upon some of the poorest people in the world.

In the Horn of Africa, Castro backed Eritrea's struggle for independence against Ethiopia - and then Ethiopia's bid to subdue Eritrea, depending on where the Marxists happened to hold power.

So forget the supposed romance of Castro's island. When the old dictator was not risking a nuclear war or inflaming distant conflicts in Africa, he was vilifying his own people for daring to flee his rule.

Such was his determination that power should run only through him that he happily imprisoned those who wanted to set up independent trade unions. Hardly a workers' paradise, then. Cuba's impending normality should be celebrated.

( Daily Telegraph, London)

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