The post-Panamax era and U.S. policy toward Cuba

The post-Panamax era and U.S. policy toward Cuba

By Renato Recio • Published on 17 February, 2014

HAVANA – During the first week in February, the debate over U.S.-Cuba relations was rekindled — as seldom before — after many communications media and primarily the influential newspaper The Washington Post published several articles whose content seemed to coincide with President Obama’s words in Miami two months ago: “We have to be creative. And we have to be thoughtful. And we have to continue to update our policies.”

Many people took note of that statement and considered that the President had suggested that he was considering to review U.S. policies toward Cuba. But everything went on peacefully until Alfonso Fanjul, a sugar magnate of Cuban origin, was interviewed by The Washington Post.

Contrary to what everyone might have imagined, Fanjul, 76 and one of the most conspicuous donors to the organizations that act against the Cuban Revolution, acknowledged that he was beginning to look at the island’s economy with the eyes of an investor. In addition, he confirmed that he had begun to visit Cuba (he did so twice, in 2012 and 2013) and to hold talks with high-ranking Cuban officials. Fanjul did not obtain the permit to travel to Cuba as an ordinary citizen but within the “people-to-people” modality granted to the Brookings Institution, a think tank that has frequently addressed Obama to suggest policies that update U.S. relations with Cuba.

In fact, Ted Piccone, deputy director of the Brookings Institution, recommended to the President in late January a package of unilateral measures to expand commerce, travel and communication with the Cuban people. Among those measures were an expansion of the general travel licenses and the removal of Cuba from the list of states that promote terrorism. Piccone also proposed to eliminate the six-month wait imposed on any ship that docks in a Cuban port before it docks in an American port.

“This latter step is of increasing value to our own trade interests as we get closer to the opening of the enlarged Panama Canal in 2015,” Piccone wrote.

These words may contain the answer to the question “Why now?” One clue might be the recent inauguration of the deep-water megaport, container terminal and Special Development Zone at Mariel, 45 kilometers west of Havana, capable of enabling the interaction of the commercial and productive chains in the major economic poles of Asia and the Pacific with the Americas, using large container-carrying ships of the type known as post-Panamax.

In May of last year, economist Pedro Monreal published an article titled “The post-Panamax Era: An Opportunity for Cuba?” in which he stated that the operation of the Mariel port could be an effective part of a process that will reorganize a substantial part of worldwide production and trade today. “If Cuba’s incorporation in this process proves beneficial for transnational capital, as it appears to be the case, it could unleash unprecedented economic and political dynamics for Cuba in the last half of this century,” Monreal wrote.

As an example, the economist said, Mariel could be a factor in the reduction of the cost of global products such as the iPhone, in the stability of the supply of components used by the Toyota assembly plans in Alabama, Mississippi and West Virginia, and in the establishment of new centers of distribution in the East Coast of the United States. That way, if Mariel, a modern megaport geographically situated in “the key to the Gulf,” remains outside the process of reorganization of world trade due to the current policy of the United States, not only the small island would be affected but also the United States.

The approaching post-Panamax era has been fueling the recent desire to invest in Cuba expressed almost simultaneously by countries like Mexico, China, Russia and Brazil. Consider that Brazil has put up a $1 billion credit line for the remodeling of the Port of Mariel, a sizeable figure for an economy like Cuba’s. Also, the European Union has recently expressed its intention to reprise its economic and political relations with Cuba, a country that has just displayed its capacity for continental leadership by brilliantly organizing the Second Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), at which member nations vigorously called for an end to the U.S. embargo/blockade of Cuba.

On a related subject, in March of this year the Cuban parliament will meet in a special session to discuss a new version of the Foreign Investment Law. The linking of these elements draws a scenario that is propitious for the new developments.

A contribution to this was made — with pragmatic bias — by the former Republican governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, today the Democratic candidate for that same post. “The embargo has done nothing in more than fifty years to change the regime in Cuba,” Crist said in a statement. “Changing these policies to allow Florida’s’ farmers, manufacturers, and construction industry to sell goods and services in Cuba would boost Florida’s economy and help businesses create more jobs in our state.”

Other politicians, such as former U.S. Senator Bob Graham and Representative Kathy Castor, both Democrats, have also recently said that they favor an end to the 52-year embargo. Former state Senator Nan Rich, a rival to Crist and herself a candidate to the governorship of Florida, has also supported a change in policy.

A conjunction of voices. Perhaps we’re seeing a process of media preparation that will make it easier for the White House to take some sort of initiative. Nobody knows the caliber of the changes Obama is pondering, but he cannot pretend to make changes just so everything will remain the same. But the initiatives he announces, whatever they may be, will undoubtedly be couched in that tired refrain that claims the White House is making them to help the Cuban people to achieve freedom and the full enjoyment of human rights and other etceteras.

It would be very optimistic to hope that Washington wants, or can, offer Cuba a normal, mutually advantageous relationship without meddling or attempts at domination or aggressions of any kind, but a step forward might be in the offing. The rest will come tomorrow and that’s not far off, if compared with the long past.

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