Why Your Tourism Dollars Aren’t Helping Ordinary Cubans

Monday, May 23, 2016
By Todd Moss in The Washington Examiner:

Why Your Tourism Dollars Aren’t Helping Ordinary Cubans

The news out of Cuba lately is all glamour and glitz. Usher made a visit. A Carnival Cruise ship arrived packed with excitable tourists. French luxury goods maker Chanel turned a Havana boulevard into a fashion show runway featuring sparkling cocktail dresses and sequined black berets.

Next up: The Kardashians are filming their reality television show in Cuba. On the heels of President Obama’s historic visit last March, it might be easy to get the impression that this explosion of American attention is all part of Cuba’s speedy march toward modernization.

Let’s not fool ourselves. It’s one thing to reopen our embassy and allow limited tourism and investment. It’s quite another to expect these steps to quickly lead to transformation of what’s still, lest we forget, a one-party communist dictatorship 90 miles from Florida. Diplomatic normalization plus a celebrity patina does not equal real reform.

America’s true goals in Cuba are to restore democracy and bring the island back into the global economy. We aim to bury half a century of enmity and to seek resolution for thousands of people who lost their homes, their businesses and in many cases, their loved ones. Cruise ships and fashion shows are, at best, irrelevant.
It may seem exciting for American tourists to finally be able to ride a floating shopping mall right into Havana harbor.

And many Americans yearn for throwback experiences like the Copacabana nightclub. But it’s a delusion to believe that throngs of tourists will in any way help to promote political freedom. Visiting Cuba may seem suddenly adventurous to Americans, but the island already received 3.5 million tourists last year, mainly from Europe and Canada.

For some, it may appear romantic or avant-garde to hold radical chic fashion shows among the crumbling buildings of Havana. But these spectacles will make no difference to the lives of the average Cuban. Chanel’s goods are not sold in Cuba and, even if they were, 70 percent of the population works for the government on an average salary of $25 per month.

The pop stars, fashionistas, and mass tourism could even be counterproductive by providing the regime with the false appearance of normalcy and a financial lifeline for a bankrupt system. Without the usual donations from Venezuela, the Cuban economy is today deeply reliant on tourism. This is happening just as some of the modest economic improvements are actually being reversed.

At a secretive Communist Party congress last month, the government backtracked on market reforms in food distribution and pricing. The state still owns nearly 80 percent of arable land and is forced to import most of the nation’s food. Inflation is reportedly getting worse, but no one really knows since basic data collection is not allowed. That’s precisely because the Cuban government hopes a normal relationship with the United States will boost their sagging economy, without touching its closed political system.

Indeed, since President Obama’s historic visit, the Castro brothers have hardened their anti-U.S. rhetoric and insisted that, even if they will accept our tourists, they will not allow Washington to change Cuba. There’s the rub. If Americans think that tourism and trade will help to bring about capitalism and eventually political change, the Cubans believe the polar opposite: A flood of tourism dollars will be a lifeline for the regime to salvage communism.

All the cruise ships and celebrities may make good media headlines. But let’s not kid ourselves that glitz and glamor will do anything to unseat an aging dictator intent on keeping Cuba stuck in the past.

Todd Moss is Chief Operating Officer and Senior Fellow at the Washington think-tank The Center for Global Development.