Beginning tomorrow (March 21), President Barack Obama will make an historic visit to Cuba and it will be the first visit of a US President to Cuba since 1928 when President Calvin Coolidge when he attended the 6th Pan-American Conference on the island. Since President Obama and President Raul Castro initiated the process to re-establish formal diplomatic relations on Dec 17th 2014, there have been significant steps taken to reshape these relations. These have included the easing of travel restrictions, the reinstatement of regular postal service, discussions surrounding potential investments in the industrial and tourism sectors, and most recently, Cuba’s move to remove the 10% penalty on the US currency, if the US allows Cuba access to the global banking system .
Recent moves also include the removal of Cuba from the list of countries which have major security challenges on their maritime ports.
The visit comes at a significant period in hemispheric relations and the support and solidarity rendered by Latin America and the Caribbean over the years cannot be underestimated. One must recall the bold decision in 1972 of four Caribbean states – Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Jamaica – which boldly, in the height of the Cold War, established diplomatic relations with Cuba. And CARICOM in one of its most positive foreign policy coordination efforts has sustained the engagement until now.
The advancement in the relations between the United States and Cuba has however raised concerns among some Caribbean citizens and analysts. In the first place there are those who argue that relations between Caribbean states and Cuba may shift firm collaboration to competition. Since the view has been advanced that Cuba will become an attractive environment for investment, given its proximity to the United States at the expense of renewed foreign investment and economic interest in CARICOM states.
Additionally, there are those who contend that development assistance may be redirected from the rest of the hemisphere to Cuba, and that the recent trends towards greater economic and trade engagement with the European Union would result in reduced interest and cooperation with CARICOM. Further, Canada, Brazil and China, emerging actors in the Caribbean have intensified their economic interest with Cuba, and the concern from CARICOM is that these states may also shift their economic interests to Cuba and reduce economic assistance to the smaller states in the region.
Of equal significance is the view that Cuba will attract a larger number of tourists especially from the US who traditionally sought the sun, sand and sea of the Caribbean states. While these concerns have emerged it can be argued that after more than four decades of economic and political cooperation between Cuba and CARICOM, there is ample scope for greater interaction among these states. CARICOM must therefore be proactive, in a new process of strategic regional repositioning since there is great potential for the expansion of trade and investment between Cuba and CARICOM.
The Mariel Special Development Zone can provide the space for CARICOM investment in the hotel and service sectors and there is also potential for increased investment in the expansion of trade in the services sector, for which CARICOM can benefit. Equally important is the possibility of joint-venture activity in the tourism section especially in the area of multi-destination tourism and this can redound to the benefit of the Caribbean states.