As you ponder the impact on political and economic freedom in Cuba of the Obama administration’s diplomatic opening to that Communist-ruled country, keep this figure in mind: $50. That’s how much every American visitor has to pay the Castro regime for a tourist visa each time he or she travels to the island, as the administration is aggressively encouraging people to do. Last year, 160,000 people visited Cuba from the United States, which translates into $8 million, not chump change for the financially troubled regime. Those numbers are on course to double in 2016.
We make this point to place the latest celebratory headlines about the renewal of scheduled air travel from the United States to Cuba in a broader perspective. If you think the president’s policy will “empower” the fledgling Cuban private sector, as opposed to the overbearing state, think again. Easy money from expensive visas is a relatively minor example of the regime’s so-far successful efforts to reap direct benefit from the new relationship with the United States. Even more important is the fact that the Cuban armed forces own the country’s dominant tourism companies, and those firms are expanding their role in anticipation of an American influx.
As recently reported, the Cuban military has taken over a previously autonomous office that controlled Old Havana, a major tourist attraction, as well as a bank responsible for most of Cuba’s international financial transactions. Gaviota, a military-owned tourism company, is in the midst of what the journalists call “a hotel building spree,” which Cuba needs because its existing hotels lack sufficient capacity, by far, to accommodate hundreds of thousands of additional visitors from the United States. To date, Cuban private operators had been filling the gap by renting rooms in their homes. The military’s activities show that the regime has no intention of sharing the market with these “cuentapropistas,” as Cuban small businesses are known in Spanish. The Obama administration claims that support for these entrepreneurs is a major aim of its policy; it sees them as a potential source of middle-class pressure in favor of democracy. Meanwhile, it authorizes Starwood Hotels, a giant U.S. firm, to join forces with the Cuban state in operating government-run hotels.
Stripped of the high-minded rhetoric, the fundamental tendency of the new dispensation in U.S.- Cuban relations is toward collaboration between U.S. corporations and military gatekeepers on the island, in which profits take priority over the basic human rights of the Cuban people. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s very much like the arrangement that once existed between Washington and the kleptocratic Batista regime Fidel Castro overthrew in 1959.