Two weeks ago on a trip to Cuba the buzz was about this week’s CELAC summit, and more specifically about Brazil. President Dilma has now inaugurated the Port of Mariel, a $1 billion BNDS-backed Odebrecht investment. Brazilian capital is playing the long game there also in cane, soy, corn, tobacco and pharmaceuticals. For Brazil and Cuba, business is business, but shared history and the wink of solidarity doesn’t hurt.
Yet even as Havana was gearing up to host a few dozen heads of state, their spouses, and entourages and the press corp, I also heard a clear and explicitly stated interest in cooperation with the United States, between governments, business and society. It is already happening in a low-key way, but not through large-scale, Brazil-type investment. At least not yet. Instead, Cubans living in the United States are sending over $1 billion a year to families, who in turn are investing in new small businesses, some turning a profit, some not. There is no travel ban for Cuban-Americans, and I am guessing that the recently-opened residential real estate market is booming in part because of capital from Miami. (It is only a matter of time before the borders disappear, and Cuban capital palpably helps boost the South Florida economy).
Americans without family on the island still must ask our government for special licenses to travel to Cuba legally. And the government is fickle in granting them, mainly because the ever-self-protecting bureaucracy tends to follow the political zeitgeist: just say “no” to anything that might help the Castros, even if the American national interest suggests otherwise. But even that equation is now changing.
President Obama does not have a nuclear crisis or a genocidal civil war or a sectarian conflict compelling him to finally and substantially overhaul Washington’s tired and embarrassing Cuba policy. But he does have a consensus to do so from American public and editorial opinion, and from the business, cultural, artistic, athletic, religious and you-name-it communities in the United States. All he has to do is lead, and this consensus will make itself manifest in a heartbeat.
Other than the competitive juices that might have started to flow during this week’s showcasing of Brazil’s presence in Cuba, there is one geopolitical event that could compel Obama to finally marginalize the tiny minority within his own party that prefers to keep Cuba policy on ice. In 13 months, March 2015, Obama will make his final presidential appearance at the Summit of the Americas, the Inter-American system’s marquee event where Washington still has a voice. Last year in Cartagena, the message was unanimous: Cuba next time, or no Summit. Obama can again dismiss this message and lose even more influence in the Americas. But the stars are aligning for Obama to make a big legacy move by 2015. Mark my word and start your clocks.