Visiting Cuba at the time of the Brexit vote was an interesting vantage point from which to view the contrasting themes of loss and opportunity, given the parallels between the UK’s disengagement with Europe and Cuba’s re-engagement with the US. Both England and Cuba are island nations and both took paths 40 and 55 years ago respectively, which they pursued for decades and from which both are now departing. Both are small, determined, self-contained, with a touch of faded glory and surrounded by behemoths- the US to the north of Cuba and mainland Europe to the east of England.
England joined what has become the European Union in 1973, and reluctantly over time moved to embrace Europe but always with a begrudging reservedness, which has now culminated in Brexit, and possibly now, Bregret. Quite who it is going to trade with post EU divorce, is yet to be resolved, in a commercial world structured on trading blocs such as the EU, ASEAN, NAFTA and the looming TPP. The Empire cannot be re-made; its erstwhile colonies have moved on and will perhaps pass England by.
Cuba took a path of isolationism from 1960 onwards, part imposed on it by others, and in its almost hermetically sealed state, time has largely stood still. Its near empty country roads, plied by creaking 1950’s Chevys and the occasional horse and cart, its communication networks are near internet and social media free (only 5% of the country has WiFi). However, in September this year it will be legal for US citizens to travel to Cuba and direct daily flights will commence between the US and Cuba. Suddenly, Cuba will be relatively open to it its northern neighbour and it‘s 350 million people. This will present tremendous opportunities for commercial development and wealth creation, but it will not be without the possibility of losing some of its current uniqueness.
Many Americans will find Cuba, or aspects of it, confronting, and to many it will not seem a place for a holiday. Much will not appeal to many-it’s overt communism, poverty, secularism, ancient cars, non-functioning service levels (where tips are given more out of sympathy than in recognition of quality), dreary and poorly executed food, backwardness and lack of modernity. Moreover, the powerful sense it gives that initiative and effort go thwarted and unrewarded, and where so many life opportunities are denied its citizens. It is a place where the average monthly wage is US$150, with little differential in earnings between its people, regardless of what they do. Whilst there, our taxi driver in a 1955 Chevy was a medical specialist in Endocrinology, but who made more from moonlighting in his old family car than he did in his full time job as a doctor. With the imminent onslaught of Americans into many Cubans’ lives, I suspect that what will happen is that those Cubans with a bit of nous will “get it” and work out a way of getting ahead quickly and maximise the opportunities that are presented, whilst most others won’t and will fall behind.
With 55 years of isolation, there are few to guide young Cubans on how to get ahead as there is little living memory of how to run a business. Who is to teach buddying Cuban entrepreneurs? Cuba could yet become the fodder for “Cuban specials” of US business television. Maybe “The Apprentice” will do a Cuban tour? Quite what the Cubans would make of The Donald is unclear (though the Cuban regime will share Trump’s view of the prodigal son, Ted Cruz). But the world would forever be grateful to Cuba if it was to fully occupy the great man’s time on an extended Cuban series of The Apprentice for 2017 and beyond.
There are some tremendously positive aspects to Cuba. It has some stunning scenery, with tropical mountains and crystal water beaches, all under an ever present Florida like blue sky- many visual images will stay with you. Apart from its stunning natural scenery, the magnificent period architectural beauty of Havana (whose distressed buildings have become an unconscious art form) and the rustic charm of places like Trinidad, there are some great attributes of Cuban society. It has an authenticity and “livingness” that is unique, and some aspects of it compare favourably to the US, such as:
- the absence of racial tension, and indeed significant racial harmony in what is a truly multi-racial society (it shares with the US, a history of slavery)
- relative equality amongst its people with little wealth differential (albeit that it is rooted in being equally poor or sufficient, at best)
- a comprehensive health system that is available to all, with no economic discrimination
- no gun violence and very few drug problems
- a living music culture, and vibrant painted art culture
- no consumerism (albeit there is nothing to buy), and the happy absence of advertising and its insidious psychological pressures
- no obesity and the absence of other health issues that are rife in US society
- no social media obsession and the absence of a celebrity driven culture.
If Americans visiting Cuba go without a sense of superiority, and can recognize the many wonderful things about Cuba, they will more fully enjoy the place and Cubans in turn will embrace them, and it could be the beginning of a tremendous, mutually beneficial relationship. Mutual respect is a must. Lessons are to be learnt from England’s failure to embrace Europe. Ultimately, it has led to divorce. By stepping into the light, Cuba will markedly gain but may lose some of the nuances of shade, but England, by withdrawing and receding, may come to express more of its darker, xenophobic side.