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Tourism in Havana, May 2010 (AP photo)

Americans go to Vietnam (and love it), so why not Cuba?

COMMENTARY | December 03, 2010

Bill Claiborne and his wife recently spent some time in Vietnam; he even put together a travelogue. The trip evoked memories of Cuba -- and the sense that the American press should do a better job on why restrictions still exist, and what to expect when Castro is no longer on the scene.

By William Claiborne

As my wife and I traveled around Vietnam recently during a glorious journey through the Indochina peninsula, I was constantly confronted by images that made me think about the senselessness of the nearly 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo and travel restrictions that America continues to impose on Cuba. (Click here for my travelogue of the Vietnam journey).

The two of us had surreptitiously visited Cuba as tourists in 1991 when we were living in Canada, and I remember my feelings of dismay upon seeing the devastating effects of the U.S. embargo on Cubans as we strolled through the charming but decaying neighborhoods of Havana and later drove our rented four-wheel-drive across the island nation to the Bay of Pigs. I could not understand then—and I don’t understand now—what purpose is served by effectively barring American tourism in Cuba by making it illegal for U.S. citizens to spend money there.

Yes, there was a lot of poverty, and the few cars still on the pot-holed roads were mostly 1960s-vintage junkers kept roadworthy with little more than Cuban ingenuity and bailing wire. But Cubans had excellent-and free-educational and health care services and I couldn’t imagine how withholding trade and potential income from tourism was going to change their obvious loyalty to Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government.

Cubans are widely recognized as proud of their victory in the 1950s struggle to overthrow the despotic and corrupt government of the U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista. The ones we met – and almost all others, I believe, weren’t likely to abandon the revolution and Castro at the behest of a U.S. government that had unsuccessfully invaded their country and had repeatedly tried to assassinate him. I still don’t understand the embargo and the other sanctions, which the anti-Castro backers have always claimed were necessary to “unshackle” the Cuban people. It’s a subject the press should deal with, but doesn’t.

Is the purpose to punish Cuba for continuing to embrace communism? China is still a communist country nearly four decades after President Richard Nixon visited there and set the stage for most-favored nation trade agreements and normal diplomatic relations, not to mention a fiscal relationship in which China has become the United States’ largest creditor, to the tune of $883.5 billion in U.S. Treasury securities at last count.  

Is the idea to try to force Cuba to improve its human rights record? The Havana-based Cuban Commission on Human Rights, which, although officially an illegal organization, is tolerated by the Cuban government, recently reported that the number of political prisoners in Cuba had fallen from 201 to 167, and since then the government has begun releasing 52 more detainees. Human rights organizations say that imprisonment of political opponents has been largely replaced by harassment and intimidation of suspected dissidents, without incarceration. The same kind of harassment and intimidation of political dissidents is common in many countries with which the U.S. has close business and political ties, including the Soviet Union and China, not to mention countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.  

China currently has 1,452 political detainees behind bars, according to the U.S. Congressional Executive Commission on China, which said an additional 4,237 political prisoners had been recently released, executed, died in prison or escaped. And Vietnam, according to Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Caucus on Vietnam, has 100-plus jailed detainees—approximately the same as Cuba-- who are being “persecuted for challenging the Communist Party.”
In Vietnam, where the hammer and sickle flies from government offices and People’s Committee headquarters, I saw western tourists everywhere we went, including large numbers from the U.S. and Australia, both of which fought North Vietnam in the longest and most debilitating conflict in each country’s history. After decades of ravaging wars with first France and then the U.S., which for obvious reasons precluded any tourism, Vietnam is fast becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Asia-Pacific region, helping to fuel the country’s impressive economic growth. Since 1998 there has been a 286 per cent rise in tourism, growing to 6 million visitors this year and an estimated $4.5 billion in revenue, or 13 per cent of the country’s G.D.P.

I saw numerous signs of growing American investment, which 30 years after the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese Army, has made the United States the largest source of foreign business investment in Vietnam, with 48 per cent of all new foreign capital this year. American companies like Intel, Coca-Cola, Caterpillar, Exxon and Mobile, to name just a few, are thriving in Vietnam, making it one of the fastest-growing of the world’s emerging economies. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says that Vietnam is regarded by American companies as the most attractive investment opportunity in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations region.

Since the mid-1980s, Vietnam has made a shift from a centrally-planned economy to a Socialist-oriented market economy, and the result is a 2009 annual GDP growth rate of 5.3 per cent in the midst of a global downturn.  Economists at PriceWaterhouseCoopers predicted that a potential growth rate of almost 10 per cent a year could make Vietnam 70 per cent the size of Great Britain’s economy by 2050.

Also clearly on view to me was a rapidly-changing national demographic featuring the emergence of an upwardly mobile generation of young Vietnamese who were born long after the war ended and whose western cultural influences are unmistakable when you see them in trendy restaurants speaking to each other in English, eating with forks and knives instead of chopsticks and sending text messages on their BlackBerries. They watch American movies, listen to American music and a growing number of them work for American companies. But if their government is communist and if it limits political dissent, why doesn’t the United States impose a trade embargo and travel restrictions on it also?

What attracted me to Vietnam in the first place was not an interest in its economic potential but a desire to learn more about this country’s rich and evocative history covering thousands of years in which some of the most powerful empires of Asia were created and destroyed. I looked for, and found, fascinating chapters of Vietnam’s ancient history in places like Hanoi’s Temple of Literature, which in 1070 became Vietnam’s first Confucian university, and Hue’s majestic Citadel and nearby tomb of Emperor Tu Duc.

As I walked through these places, and others, all of them filled with foreign tourists spending money and swelling Vietnam’s hard currency reserve, I couldn’t help wonder how much the hardscrabble lives of the Cubans whom I encountered in 1991 would be improved only if trade, investment and travel restrictions imposed by successive U.S. governments since 1962 were lifted and relations with Cuba were normalized.

When Castro dies, do we expect a sudden – or even gradual – change in relations? If so, why? Will there really be that much change from today in the Cuban government? Or in American politics? These are speculative questions, of course, but since when has that stopped journalists? And there is a lot of basic reporting to be done, as well.

If communist Vietnam and the capitalist United States could find peace and normal relations after a bitter 20-year war that left  59,878 American soldiers dead or missing and 1.7 million North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong dead (plus 220,357 South Vietnamese soldiers killed), than surely the U.S. could normalize relations with its tiny, militarily-impotent neighbor, Cuba.

Of course, the continuation of the trade embargo and the ban on American tourism in Cuba are no longer tactics to weaken the “Evil Empire” and its designs on communist hegemony, which collapsed along with the Soviet Union in 1990-91. They also can no longer be to economically weaken Cuba to the point it will show greater respect for human rights. Cuba already is demonstrably softening its suppression of political dissidents. Besides, the embargo could be costing the U.S. more than it does Cuba. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the trade restrictions cost the U.S. economy $1.2 billion a year in lost sales and exports, while the Cuban government estimates that they cost the island nation half that amount.

It is hard not to draw the conclusion that the real reason for maintaining the embargo and the travel restrictions is primarily the dynamics of electoral politics in South Florida. While national polls show a majority of Americans favor normalizing relations with Cuba and lifting the travel ban, Cuban-American exiles, whose votes have proven crucial in Florida elections, overwhelmingly are pro-embargo, and they represent a significant bloc of campaign contributors to state and national political candidates as well.

The influx of Cuban-Americans dramatically changed the electoral landscape of Dade County from a solid Democratic bastion to a majority of only 11 per cent more of the registered voters than the Republican Party (487,198 to 364,847). Many of them, particularly the first generation of exiles in the early 1960s, came from the elite classes of Cuba who have prospered in South Florida and contribute generously to candidates who support the embargo on communist Cuba. Florida has five Cuban-Americans in Congress and 10 in the state legislature, and the politically conservative exiles’ numerous lobbying organizations wield considerable influence in Washington.

Florida’s 25 electoral votes were pivotal to George W. Bush’s contested 2000 presidential victory over Al Gore. In the 2004 election, with 27 electoral votes, Florida handed Bush, a strong supporter of the Cuban embargo, a decisive victory over Sen. John Kerry. Four years later, Barack Obama edged out John McCain in Florida by a 51-48 per cent margin. Based on the 2010 census, Florida should get two more electoral votes, making it the ultimate swing state in presidential elections and, at the same time, further increasing the political influence of the state’s 1 million exiled Cuban voters. Furthermore, the 2012 Republican National Convention will be held in Tampa, thereby focusing additional attention on Florida and its Cuban exile community in the national political arena.

On the face of it, prospects for lifting the trade embargo and restrictions on travel to Cuba are not encouraging, despite Obama’s declared intent to try to ease travel restrictions to allow more Cuban exiles to travel to their homeland and remit money there. Even though he campaigned in 2008 on a pledge to go further than that in normalizing relations with Cuba, Obama may have his eye on Florida’s expected electoral prominence in 2012.
In September, as he extended the embargo for yet another year, he said the move was “in the national interest of the United States.”


Posted by John
12/03/2010, 05:00 PM

So the US embargo is solely responsible for Cuba’s economic woes and not its one part command economy …. Gotcha. Bilateral trade will not benefit the Cuban people so long as the corrupt communist government controls all aspects of economic life in Cuba. As for Cuba’s impotency, they still have a disproportionally large covert presence both here in the US as well as the rest of Latin America.

As for your subtle maligning of South Florida’s Cuban community, you do realize that there were 10,000’s of Cubans who were either directly executed for “counter revolutionary activities” or worked to death in labor camps in the years following the revolution, most of whom were connected directly to the Cuban immigrants in the states. I don’t blame the older generation for still holding a grudge.

Obama is missing the chance for change
Posted by John McAuliff
12/06/2010, 12:11 AM

This is an insightful article.

I worked for many years with Vietnam, assisting the process of normalization of relations with the US and closely observing the transformations its government and people undertook of its economy and society.

Now I am similarly involved with Cuba and it is obvious the country is going through its own version of transformation.

Unfortunately US policy is caught in the bitter and vengeful embrace of exile politics even though most Cuban Americans do not agree with the dead end touted by their leaders.

The same is true in the Vietnamese American community. However the hostility of the old guard is a minor nuisance. Once a President makes the decision to normalize relations as Nixon did with China and Clinton did with Vietnam, everything changes.

Obama has taken important steps, allowing unlimited travel and remittances for Cuban Americans and permitting academics and cultural figures from Cuba to visit the US.

However he is failing to use his authority in ways that will lay the groundwork for normalization.

The White House is dithering on announcement of relaxed regulations for non-tourist travel and humanitarian assistance. It continues to unjustifiably list Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and tries to prevent Cuba's international use of the dollar.

People who want to encourage the White House to open travel can do so here http://www.change.org/fund_for_reconciliation_deve ...

or ask their Representative and Senators to contact the President here http://www.change.org/fund_for_reconciliation_deve ...

John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development

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