21 Nov. 2015
Old flags are flying and embassies have reopened since August 14th. On the surface, it seems as if US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro’s nascent motions for diplomacy were a step in the right direction to reconcile the two countries’ tattered past. To date, a new commission has opened as a platform to discuss key, strategic plans for cooperation and increase dialogue.
A third round of negotiations have also begun, with Cuba firmly resolute to uphold its end of the talks after releasing 53 political prisoners, former American spy Alan Gross, and 3,522 political prisoners prior Pope Francis’s visit. However, in order to make further concessions, Obama must in turn resolve the following grievances: to “leave Guantanamo detention camp; end the blockade; end the “wet-foot-dry-foot” law encouraging Cubans to pursue residency in the U.S.; and end anti-government radio and television transmissions into the island”. Further memorandums of understanding were signed for the preservation of wildlife and marine biodiversity as a measure of good faith.
The Kennedy era was a combative time for the two, as the Western hemisphere’s first Socialist democracy took shape right under the nose of a global superpower. Almost 60 years later, after the fallout of Operation Mongoose, Bay of Pigs fiasco, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Obama became one of the first presidents to address the crippling economic, commercial, and financial blockade on Cuba—a unilaterally imposed motion by the US, and where the US is the only enforcer thereof. Obama’s legacy of bridge building is once again being put to the test, as it had been during the landmark Iran Deal, which sharply contrasts with his failures in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Venezuela, and the Balkans.
On October 27th, Cuban FM Bruno Rodriguez publically addressed the US blockade by mentioning that minimal concessions have been made on America’s part to end it, directly impacting Cuba’s food, medical, and banking sectors. “Barely a week ago, a 1.116 billion dollar fine was imposed on the French bank Credit Agricole, which adds up to the 1.710 billion dollar fine imposed on the German bank Commerzbank in March this year for doing transactions with Cuba and other States,” he explained.
“It will not be able to supply to the National Institute of Oncology and Radiobiology or any other hospital in Cuba the radioactive isotope Iridium-192, […] because its purveyor, the US company Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, refused to sell it to Cuba,” he continued. Commenting on the extensive and painful losses that the blockade has caused, Rodriguez also highlighted that based on “rigorous and conservative calculations, the economic damages it has caused after more than half a century amount to 833.755 billion dollars, based on the price of gold. At current prices, it amounts to 121.192 billion dollars, a figure of enormous proportions for a small economy like ours”.
I had the luxury of witnessing these “damages” that Rodriguez spoke of first-hand. On my recent tour of eight Cuban cities, I saw the effects of the blockade: while some dire renovations of the Old Town of Havana continued, including the restoration of the Capitol building by MD Projektmanagement, there were large swaths along the Malecon and other regions that remained in disrepair due. Cuba’s reliance on tourism and foreign investment has contributed to its 7.5% growth (2001 – 2007). Nevertheless, due to the Wall Street-inspired global economic crisis and tanking commodity prices, Cuba’s growth rate has flatlined at 2.1% (2006-present). Cuba’s also exudes pride over its excellent medical services, which are first-rate but still inaccessible to USD transactions for some traveller insurance programmes. “Residents in the United States traveling to Cuba will have to take out their insurance policy at their home country of departure from Cuban insurance companies. […] US insurance companies do not provide coverage in the Cuban national territory,” World Nomad states.
Cuba suffers from a lack of international goods and internal food supplies have been rationed for the last 50 years. Furthermore, the transport system was limited to its ageing Viazul and recently installed Transtour intercity bus systems. There was only the Ferrocarilles de Cuba railway, acquired from second-hand purchases from countries not affected by the embargo. There was also the Hershey Electric railway, spanning from Matanzas to Havana, which a local passerby explained that it suffered power shortages from time to time. A slow, but promising upgrade from Venezuelan and Iran was initiated in 2007, but Venezuela’s own struggle with American colour revolutions threatens these bilateral relations.
Nevertheless, Cuba has continued to uphold its commitment to medical internationalism and ecotourism, even in the face of US-imposed sanctions, until new solutions are introduced, either through negotiations on the embargo, or through alternate economic opportunities. However, one opportunity Cuba has completely overlooked is its eligibility in the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank; BRICS’ new multipolar solution and a viable option for a diverse collection of 50 countries dedicated to revitilising their infrastructure. “The AIIB […] will focus on the development of infrastructure and other productive sectors in Asia, including energy and power, transportation and telecommunications, rural infrastructure and agriculture development, water supply and sanitation, environmental protection, urban development and logistics, etc,” the organisation mentions. Countries as poor as Myanmar and as rich as Germany are now shareholders, which rivals the Washington-led World Bank and dwarfs the Japanese ADB, yet Cuba’s absentee membership in the Silk Road belies its desperate need for progress.
Under the AIIB, all financial transactions occur under the Yuan (while China continues to sell off USD), and are backed by 100 billion USD in capital and assets. For the first time, countries will have the option to bypass purchases in USD, offering prospective bargaining power. Furthermore, China’s advantage lies in both its assured entrance into the IMF as a global reserve currency and its inauguration of the China International Payment System—offering an alternative to American SWIFT transactions. Recent sanctions on the Russian economy have made the Ruble more volatile, but nevertheless it remains at all-time highs after lessoning reliance on fossil fuels and diversifying its purchaser base. In turn, China has long established itself as an economic hegemon by surpassing America in terms of purchasing power parity. Next month, the AIIB’s inauguration will certainly shake the foundations of America’s death grip over international markets, and again, Cuba will no longer need USD for direct purchases.
This offers a long-term solution by reestablishing the global order, giving Cuba the advantage of investment and sovereignty; China’s commitment to the 5 Principles of Peaceful Coexistence ensures that any investments Cuba makes within the AIIB will not infringe its right to self-determination. Additionally, Russia’s generous write-off of Cuba’s post-Soviet debt falls squarely in alignment with President Vladimir Putin’s solidarity tour of Latin America. More importantly, historical synergy between the three countries should also prove fruitful than ever, now that the Eastern bloc is on one accord via a 400 billion USD bilateral agreement; the world’s largest. This allows greater autonomy on an unprecedented scale, in the form of military cooperation, raw materials, infrastructure projects, and energy; a necessary contingency in the event America retaliates while losing its hegemony, as well as hedging risk in the fallout for any AIIB shareholders.
Therefore, it confounds me why Cuba is not among those in the AIIB, and although I am a proponent of diplomacy, I find it tantamount to failure for the island nation to not capitalise on it. It is not entirely clear whether or not they are on the waiting list or refusing to join due to hidden preconditions with America. Nevertheless, even without AIIB membership, Cuba should at least consider making purchases using via CIPS. It has a real chance to experience growth without preconditions from Washington or reliance on the dollar, and could break free from the embargo without a need for negotiations. Even European AIIB members understand the need to diversify dollar holdings as sanctions on Russia and Cuba continue.
This is critical as it finally gives Cuba the chance to step back onto the global stage as an investor and not as a victim of exploitation; a sentiment experienced under occupation by the Spanish and US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. A more mature strategy President Castro could implement is a multilateral one that recognises the efforts of Washington to normalise relations, but incentivises fairness in the terms of negotiations while finally making progress through the AIIB. It would also be a huge geopolitical advantage for China, Russia, and India to incorporate Cuba into the bank’s framework. In the past, Fidel Castro nationalised exploitative American companies before; now it is time for his brother Raul to internationalise its economic policies. Once the doors open to the bank, I hope that new doors open for Cuba, as well as its citizens, in the near future. I would love to walk through the beautiful streets of Havana and Santa Clara once again; this time with an even more prosperous Cuba on the horizon.