George Petrolekas is on the Board of Directors of the CDA Institute and co-author of the 2013 and 2014 Strategic Outlook for Canada. Mr. Petrolekas served with NATO, in Bosnia, and Afghanistan and as an advisor to senior NATO commanders.
Earlier this month, U.S. President Barack Obama took steps to normalize relations with Cuba, ending the charade of an embargo that has existed since the early 1960s. A charade, in part, because it was driven by political considerations surrounding the Cuban émigré community in Miami, yet any visitor to the non-tourist locales of Cuba could see through the embargo.
In the late nineties, I ran marketing for a Canadian telecommunications equipment manufacturer and had the occasion to visit Cuba several times at the invitation of the Cuban Telephone-Telecoms company Etecsa. I stayed in Cuban homes, renting a floor of rooms rather than at tourist hotels. I soon discovered that much of the Wes'ts image of Cuba was a caricature.
The first surprise was at Havana's airport. Most of the airplanes were of Soviet vintage, but I was surprised to see American and United Airlines ticket counters, as well as many representing European airlines. I discovered that U.S. airlines flew twice a week from both Miami and New York to Cuba. Though passengers had to meet strict U.S. criteria to travel, my nights in central Havana made it clear that an awful lot of Americans travelled there, some 100,000 a year.
A U.S. dollar was accepted in almost any shop, and was in fact the unofficial currency of the country in part due to permitted remittances.
In downtown Havana an eight-storey building housing the U.S. Interests section; it had no "official" accreditation, yet some 400 U.S. diplomatic staff worked there – the largest in the country. If that in itself was not a caricature of the embargo, I don't know what was.
I met many engineers. They were as good as any we have in Canada, just not without the financial wherewithal to grow and expand. It made me think that the embargo was of itself the actual impediment to its stated goals of introducing more freedom, human rights, and choice to the Cubans.
State control, to navigate the privations of the embargo, limited what a free and open market, the exchange of goods, services and ideas might have permitted.
We worried about the fate of hundreds of dissidents, ignoring what the gains towards freedom might have been had we impacted thousands by investing in the country and expanding trade.
Instead, we lived with several caricatures; the 1960's era Chevrolets and the decrepit façade of homes. We might have learned something had we actually entered some of the homes and talked to Cubans. We might have discovered a 5,000 person Chinese quarter in Havana, or a Jewish community, or a Catholic community that persists.
Suffering from the embargo, which the BBC estimates cost the Cuban economy more than $1-trillion, we would have understood that they had to make tough choices – why you could make do with 50-year-old cars. Many of these were encapsulated in what the Cubans call Fidelismo's. One of these was "we can't afford to paint the exterior of houses because we cannot afford the paint"; other things are more important. But entering many homes, certainly not as advanced as ours, they were clean, well kept, and eminently habitable.
As I shopped in ordinary stores, or attended technical expositions it was clear to me that all sorts of products available in North America where available in Cuba, only inflated twofold and threefold as they had to enter through Mexico or Spain or Italy.
These were choices the embargo forced on Cubans that in a free economy they would have never otherwise made.
Street buses were "mules". A truck cab towing a trailer that had been welded with a cabin and seats, not our idea of a bus, but it worked. Unlike Mexico City, or Rio, or Caracas, you could walk the streets of Havana and not worry about being robbed or accosted. No beggars, no street urchins, and a working health care system. And the Cubans, as well – educated as they are, (my first taxi driver had a Phd in mathematics) knew and accepted that changes would have to come one day.
At a reception one night, I was offered a beer. "It's crap beer" my host told me, "but we brew it here, and at least we have it". She and others told me that night, we know that changes have to come, and they will. But we'd rather change come at our own speed, than to risk what happened to the Russians after the fall of the Soviet Union – where wealth and power was concentrated in the hands of oligarchs. For Cubans I spoke to, the supposed freedoms of post-Soviet Russia and the former Eastern bloc where as much a caricature of democracy as our own filtered impression of their lives.
Canadians should also be aware of a rather special place we have in the Cuban psyche. They have not forgotten that Canada maintained trade, and did not restrict travel to the island. Beyond the tourist enclaves of Varaderro, Canadians are viewed as polite, and not exploitative. Time again I heard stories of European tourists that would come to indulge in pleasures of the flesh. Not once did I hear Canadians being painted with the same brush.
How a people view your nation has much to do with future opportunity. And the opportunities for Canadians are legion. In tourism, in natural resources, in infrastructure development, and in consumer goods once this U.S. embargo is finally put to rest.
In doing so, we will do far more in advancing the cause of freedom and democracy than any 50 year regime of sanctions has so far accomplished. We should do it at Cuban speed, but the end result is, that we will all benefit.