Business opportunities are opening up in Cuba following a thawing of relations between the Communist nation and United States, and Rhode Island should get in on the action.
That’s the word from University of Rhode Island political science professor Maureen Moakley, back from a 10-day trip to Cuba with 20 URI students.
Moakley says Cubans were hopeful and “excited’’ that tourism and new ventures would bring jobs and other economic opportunities to the Communist-run nation 90 miles off the southern tip of Florida.
She says she plans to reach out to the Providence Chamber of Commerce to explore coordinating a trip to Cuba with local business leaders and Rhode Island public officials.
“It’s a time of great opportunity in Cuba,’’ said Moakley. “There are certainly possibilities for business investment – and tourism. There are going to be short-term bumps, but, in the long run, there’s tremendous potential.’’
Moakley, URI economics professor Richard McIntyre and the students, many studying political science, left for Cuba Jan. 6 and returned Jan. 16. The trip was part of URI’s J term offerings during winter break.
The trip had been planned for months, but its timing was perfect, coming a month after President Barack Obama restored diplomatic relations with the country that were cut in 1961, shortly after Fidel Castro assumed power.
“The students were over the moon,’’ said Moakley. “It was a great trip.’’
Not only did they see a nation in “transition,’’ Moakley says, they experienced the culture by living with families in the countryside, eating in local restaurants, visiting with scholars and musicians, and touring universities, museums and hospitals.
The thriving music scene and organic farming movement particularly impressed her. Students talked to hip-hop artists and enjoyed fresh produce daily. “The salads were delicious,’’ she said. “You usually don’t get salads in the Caribbean.’’
Most Cubans hope that lifting the U.S. embargo will bring greater economic opportunity, Moakley said. But she said they are opposed to making changes in their much-heralded universal health care and educational systems.
“They don’t want straight-up capitalism,’’ said Moakley. “They want to incorporate capitalism into their economic system. They're very aware of income inequality in the United States.’’
McIntyre agreed that Cubans will have final say about any changes. “I think what I took away from the trip is that we're so big and they’re so small, but what’s going to happen in Cuba going forward depends much more on what they do and much less on what we do,’’ he said. “Things are not going to change as fast as some Americans might believe and that’s a good thing. The last thing Cuba needs is 40 or 50 American-style resorts on the coast. There are going to be business opportunities – there’s no question about that – but the current government is going to go slow.
The change in Cuba is mostly going to come from within Cuba.’’
Moakley said the Cuban government will resist letting in corporate giants like Coca-Cola and Marriott. She expects Cuban leaders to embrace smaller businesses, especially telecommunications providers. A loosening of the U.S. embargo could also bring an increase in the export of wholesale goods to Cuba.
Before big changes can happen on the island though, Cuba needs to improve its airports, roads, hotels and public transportation. The Internet is spotty and unreliable and needs an overhaul.
“Everywhere we went people talked about President Obama and how excited they were about the future,’’ Moakley said. “The people are enormously enthusiastic and optimistic.’’
She said that Cubans still have high regard for Castro and his brother, Raul Castro, the pragmatic leader who worked with the United States to restore diplomatic and trade ties.
“The Cubans want to maintain control so that the island retains its unique character,’’ said Moakley. “But, on the other hand, they're trying to gradually encourage business development and open up.’’
The trip was Moakley’s third to the island, but the first for URI students. She hopes to take students to the island every year, and with fewer travel restrictions that should be possible.
Under Obama’s new regulations, Americans will be able to travel more easily to the former Cold War adversary and will be able to use credit cards. Before, only cash was accepted. It will also be easier for airlines and travel agents to provide services to Cuba.
“This is an exciting time, and to have our students be part of this historic shift provided an added educational dimension to their trip,’’ said Moakley. “What a great way for them to learn about the changing global picture.’’
Over the weekend, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, and other Democratic senators and representatives visited Cuba to gauge how receptive Raul Castro is to the American push to expand relations. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is also expected to visit Cuba to drum up business.
Photo above: University of Rhode Island students at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana, Cuba. The students spent 10 days in Cuba during the winter break. Photo by Maureen Moakley.