June 26, 2002 | Commentary on Foreign Aid and Development
Unfortunately, the prime beneficiaries of easing restrictions
are the Castro brothers-Fidel and Raúl-and the regime
itself. Cuba's Armed Forces Ministry (MINFAR) runs state-owned or
joint-venture tourist resorts. Profits from these enterprises
partly sustain the private fortunes of the Castros and provide
revenues to run the government that Cuba's decrepit sugar mills and
Soviet-style state enterprises never could support.
In fact, expanding tourism was the key to Castro's survival
after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of
subsidies of up to $5.6 billion per year. Since Sept. 11, however,
travel to Cuba has fallen off and island hotels have experienced
vacancy rates as high as 30 percent.
The recent decline in tourism only adds to Castro's financial
worries. Last year, Cuba defaulted on $500 million in loans, and
France and the Netherlands froze Cuban credit for nonpayment of
arrears. Even Castro-friendly Venezuela cut oil shipments in April
after Cuba repeatedly missed payments totaling up to $63 million
for petroleum purchased at below-market prices. Lifting the tourist
ban would give the regime a much-needed shot in the arm.
However, Castro is not likely to permit the "flood" of American
tourists that some in Washington expect, particularly the kind apt
to challenge his personal rule. His regime arbitrarily controls who
may enter and what requirements may be enforced. Tourists with
dollars to spend at isolated resorts are more likely to get a visa
than those wanting to talk to local dissidents. Current exchanges
with academics, journalists and American relatives intended to pave
the way for future political reforms may suffer as a result.
Even absent that, tourism won't necessarily encourage political
reforms anyway. A close look at Cuba's existing travel industry
shows why. Most of the Canadian and European tourists who have
visited over the last decade came to enjoy low-budget vacations, or
set foot in a political Jurassic Park, or to seek inexpensive sex
with growing numbers of prostitutes unable to survive on rations
and meager state salaries of $10-$30 per month. Such tourism has
not helped release political prisoners, nor has it forced the
regime to change any of its totalitarian policies.
Instead, it has fueled a government moneymaking scam.
Joint-venture tourism enterprises must hire all workers from the
state which in turn pays them less than 10 percent of the fees it
collects for supplying them. Sadly, these same Cuban employees may
not use the services of or buy products sold by these enterprises
under a state policy designed to limit contact between Cuban
citizens and foreign visitors.
Claims of potential windfall profits of doing business in Cuba
also are exaggerated. Cuba must compete with better-developed and
more family-oriented tourist destinations in the Caribbean and
southeastern United States. Nor will the island's 11 million
inhabitants do any traveling of their own thanks to Castro's own
embargo on Cuban travel. More important, the rule of law-not
particularly strong in Latin America-has no footprint in Cuba.
European, Mexican and Canadian firms that have attempted to do
business there have lost investments because of arbitrary changes
in policy, sudden demand for hidden fees or unexplained
cancellations of projects already in development.
If expanding opportunities for international commerce truly is
important to Congress, it should provide trade promotion authority
to President Bush to conclude free trade agreements with America's
democratic allies. But if opening tourism with a dictatorship sworn
to bring down western democracy somehow trumps business with
friendly neighbors, then the only ethical thing to do is condition
changes in U.S. law with reciprocal reforms by the Castro
In keeping with President Bush's new policy of encouraging
step-by-step reforms on the island, the United States should offer
to ease restrictions on U.S. tourist travel to Cuba when the regime
establishes fair labor practices-that is, allow Cubans to work for
whomever they wish, receive fair-market compensation, organize
independent labor unions and buy products and use services in
facilities currently off-limits to all except foreigners.
Such conditions, written into U.S. legislation, would not
directly threaten Castro's dictatorship. But they would lay the
foundation for further reforms and allow American tourists to visit
Cuba knowing those who wait on them are no longer receiving prison
wages or being segregated like second-class citizens.
Johnson is a policy analyst for Latin America at The
Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire