With The Enemy
By Michael I. Niman
My first trip to Cuba was in 1987; a UB sponsored sojourn
to the forbidden island “behind the iron curtain.” The odyssey began at the Toronto Airport as we boarded a
vintage Russian made IL 62. The
plane, forbidden to fly over the US, headed to the Atlantic Ocean and then made
a sharp right turn, depositing us in Havana’s Jose Marti airport at about
midnight. I looked out the window
at the dimly lit terminal. I
expected to see troops, statues of Lenin, maybe the curtain itself.
What I did see was the biggest Visa, as in Visa CardÔ,
symbol that I had ever seen, above the words, “Welcome to Cuba.”
So much for communism.
Once leaving the airport, however, we saw no more Visa
billboards. Actually there were no
billboards touting any product other than the official “revolutionary”
ideology of the communist party. Cuba
was still a rare advertising and commercialism free zone. At the time I really didn’t appreciate how rare this
ad-free experience would prove to be. The
following year, as a journalist based in Costa Rica, I hitchhiked and finally
when the roads turned to trails, hiked deep into the highlands of Guatemala
looking to escape American corporate culture.
But alas, a half-day’s walk beyond the last electric wires, in
“guerilla” territory, beyond the reach of government, Coca Cola and Pepsi
were still slugging it out, with Coke reigning supreme. Malnourished campesinos would spend a day’s wages
for a warm bottle of Coke, el sabor de la vida Norte Americano (a taste
of North American Life). Guerillas
Cuba was different. Havana
is one of the world’s most vibrant cities, yet it didn’t have a single
commercial billboard. People would
travel to Cuba for the sole purpose of experiencing a landscape free of
commercial clutter, a culture free of consumerism.
Rebellious youths would scrawl the names of US and British
rock bands onto walls and into fresh concrete as symbols of resistance to state
controlled media and culture. AC/DC
and The Beatles reigned in a sort of camp stab at that ever elusive concept of
hippness. Next to them were peace
and anarchist symbols and English words such as “punk” and “metal,”
dangling devoid of context. That
was 14 years ago
Today all this graffito of resistance seems to have morphed
into one symbol, the omnipresent Nike swoosh.
It’s not just on walls and in the cement, but it’s embroidered by
hand onto shirts and hats, stenciled onto car windows and on the backs of
Chinese-made pedal-cab bicycle taxis. La
Vida Nike has taken Cuba by storm. American
culture, which in essence is corporate consumer culture, has taken a beachhead
in Cuba and seemingly is there to stay.
But let’s back up. Cuba
became commercial free when their government nationalized most foreign
businesses in the early 1960s, establishing a so-called communist economy and
earning the ire of eight successive US presidents.
The Havana Hilton was re-christened The Habana Libre. United Fruit
and Meyer Lansky’s crime syndicate were both driven from the island.
The US State Department, ever quick to protest the foreign investments of
United Fruit and private businesses people such as Lansky’s mob, isolated Cuba
with a comprehensive economic embargo that exists in tact to this day.
Put simply, Americans cannot travel to Cuba, trade with Cuba or invest in Cuba. What was supposed to financially starve the Cubans into submission instead pushed them into the fold of the other economic force on the planet, the Soviet Bloc.
Being shunned by the global capitalist powers for a
generation, however, really didn’t hurt Cuba.
It instead allowed them the space to develop into something unique in
this hemisphere. Without easy
access to western banks and development loans, for example, Cuba evaded the debt
crisis that has been crippling the economic development of almost every other
third world country in the hemisphere. Likewise,
without the abundance of a consumerist society bestowed upon one small segment
of the population, Cuba escaped the criminal culture that follows alongside
inequitable distribution of wealth.
The proverbial shit hit the fan, however, in 1989 with the
breakup of the Soviet Union and the destruction of the Eastern European economic
bloc, Cuba’s primary trading partner. Suddenly
Cuba was without oil, spare parts for cars, trucks and busses, and also without
a market for it’s major exports such as sugar.
Thus began the “special period.”
Resourceful Cubans wielded old Eastern European busses together into
massive trailers, each holding 300 passengers and being pulled by South American
Ford truck tractors
Today Cuba has adapted to the special period not only with
mechanical ingenuity, but with economic compromise as well.
Cuba, once again, is open for business and courting capitalist
investment. Only they’re courting
investment on their terms. The
government remains a 51% partner in most major enterprises on the island.
Investors are happy with these terms since they are basically investing
in an island-wide monopoly. Without
the competition of a free marketplace Cuba offers firms such as Spain’s Sol
Melia hotel chain, a company that controls one third of Cuba’s upscale hotel
rooms, a safe predictable business climate.
Currently the European Union and Canada have replaced the Soviet’s as
Cuba’s primary trading partners. All
that’s left of the Russians, Cubans are quick to point out, are rusting Lada
cars and a host of hideously ugly hotels and apartment complexes, remnants of
Soviet era development and aid projects.
And with the capitalists back in town come the billboards
as Cuba is once again adorned with multinational corporate “art” touting a
With a 5.6% economic growth rate, Cuba’s economy is
booming, to the benefit of the Cuba’s leaders who are forever pleased to thumb
their noses at their American tormentors, and also to the profit of
international investors who are reaping big returns from Cuba’s mixed economy.
Left out of this party are Cuba’s closest neighbors, American
businesses still forbidden to trade “with the enemy.”
While the front door is closed, however, the back door is
wide open. US law prohibits small
business from trading with Cuba, yet brand name American products are now
omnipresent in Cuba. Tourists are
chauffeured in Ford vans. Restaurants
now serve Coke and Budweiser. Stores
sell Marlboro, Winston and Lucky Strikes. Marlboros
cost $2.50, while a pack of Luckys go for $1.50, a difference that reflects the
superior recognition of the Marlboro brand name, not a difference in wholesale
The presence of American products is the result of the
global economy and the multinational positioning of so-called “American”
corporations. Cuba’s Coke, for
example, comes from the Coca Cola Company of Mexico.
U.S. cigarettes are imported through third countries.
The US State Department, while rhetorically committed to
their arcane embargo, also recognizes the potential of the Cuban market.
Under pressure from US based corporations, they have been punching
big-business friendly loopholes through their own regulations.
Starting in 1995, for example, the Clinton administration allowed US
corporations to spend money in Cuba registering trademarks, with an eye toward
securing a foothold in the Cuban market. To
date companies such as Hard Rock Café, Nutrasweet, Heinz, Gillette, Sbarro,
Clairol, Radisson, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Warner-Lambert, Calvin Klein,
Playboy, Alamo-Rent-A-Car, Conagra, Zippo, MCI, Sara Lee, Monsanto, Pizza Hut,
UPS and the Wrigley’s gum people have all stepped up to the plate, registering
their Cuban trademarks. US law
currently allows business executives “who wish to identify commercial
opportunities” in Cuba to visit the island.
In the year 2000, over 3,400 American corporate executives traveled to
Cuba “on business.” While State Department loopholes allow large
corporations and investors to position themselves in the Cuban market, however,
small-scale American entrepreneurs are still barred from business dealing with
Cuban products are also showing up here in Buffalo.
“The Cuba Store,” owned by a Vancouver based Canadian investment
company, recently opened shop in Buffalo, selling shlocky mass-produced Cuban
Art at their Elmwood Avenue location. Art
falls under the cultural exchange provision of the current State Department
trade regulations, hence, oil paintings of 1955 Chevrolets are legal.
Sugar and cigars, however, are verboten. The Cuba Store’s parent
company, tied in with Canada’s AVC Venture Capitol Corporation, specializes in
helping American investors cash in on Cuba’s booming hotel industry by
directing legal “secondary investments” in Cuba via “third country
companies” such as Sol Melia. .
Like the tailfins that still adorn the vintage American cars plying Cuba’s highways, the anti-Cuban embargo is a Kennedy-era dinosaur. There is no “soviet threat” in this or any other hemisphere. The embargo is the legacy of dead men and defunct ideologies. In the long run it has served to strengthen the Cuban government and allow Cuba to develop a modicum of economic independence not otherwise found in the third world. In short, it’s a loser. It only hurts American business interests, throwing the booming Cuban market, 90 miles from the US coast, wide open for European capitalist domination. The US is trading with Viet Nam. We’re trading with China. Isolating Cuba makes no sense in the 21st Century.
Trading with "The Enemy"
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Copyright 2001 Michael I. Niman