Thursday, January 20, 2011

Helping Cubans help themselves - The Economist

The worm that turned: Helping Cubans to help themselves
Cuba and the United States
The Economist, Jan 20th 2011 | HAVANA

AMERICAN presidents tend to be very cautious when it comes to policy toward Cuba. True to form, Barack Obama's latest directive relaxing the rules on travel and remittances to the communist island was released late on January 14th, just before a long weekend. The directive makes it easier for religious, cultural and educational groups to visit, widens the number of airports which can apply to host charter flights and allows all Americans to send up to $2,000 a year to ordinary Cubans.

The broader economic embargo against Cuba stands. Only Congress can scrap it, and many in the new Republican majority still support it. But the administration has taken a further step in reversing George Bush's tightening of the embargo.

In 2009 it abolished Mr Bush's curbs on travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans. That has already had a noticeable effect. Last year some 400,000 Americans visited Cuba, the highest figure since before the 1959 revolution. The United States now ranks second to Canada as a source of visitors, even though direct flights have been allowed only from Miami, New York and Los Angeles and are usually full.

Remittances from across the Florida Straits may amount to $1 billion a year. Havana's best nightclubs and restaurants, once the preserve of foreigners, are now full of Cubans and their Cuban-American hosts.

Cuba's government called the latest directive "positive" but "limited". Some Cuban-American leaders denounce the changes as simply propping up the Castro brothers with American dollars. But the administration says they are designed to help Cubans free themselves from the communist state.

Allowing Americans without relatives on the island to send money will help to promote "private economic activity". The directive comes as Raúl Castro, Cuba's president, has launched a reform of the island's stagnant economy under which up to 1.8m, from a workforce of 5.2m, will be laid off from state jobs over the next few years, and required to make a living from self-employment or small business.

These people will need capital. Cuba's Central Bank may provide loans. Spain and Brazil have expressed interest in helping. But the most likely source of funds will be relatives abroad. Not long ago any Cuban leaving the island was denounced as a gusano (worm). No wonder that word has been officially retired.

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