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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, July 23, 2024


Dear Source,
Significant groups of U.S. foreign policymakers suffer from Castrophobia — an intense fear of Fidel Castro's politics. Even here in the Virgin Islands, a large percentage of our elected officials have been misinformed on the changes taken place in Cuba. Frankly, many local politicians do not have a clue about Cuban politics.
I notice a common conditional phrase in our discourse. It goes like this: "When/if Cuba opens, our tourism product will decline." But there is no justifiable reason for Virgin Islanders to fear Fidel or even post-Fidel Cuba. We should, however, fear our own complacency and shortsightedness; these weakness will destroy us.
Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, the world has changed, but our leaders have not. They offer the same old marketing formula in new forms, or as the elders say, "They put old maubi in new bottles." For the sake of discussion, let me give a very brief historical outline of Cuban-U.S. relations and their impact on Virgin Islanders. Then, I will return to my initial contention that we must become aware of the changes in the Caribbean Basin if we intend to survive in the tourism industry.
Beginning in the Dwight Eisenhower administration (1956-1960), U.S. foreign policymakers became frozen in their Containment policies that treated all socialist regimes as Soviet satellites. The expansion of Marxist-Leninist regimes in Eastern Europe, China, Indonesia, North Korea and North Vietnam (1945-1955) encouraged a counter-offensive against leftist-nationalist forces in the developing world. In response to the "communist threat," Eisenhower developed an acceptable way to gain public support: He announced a policy of massive retaliation for Soviet-bloc aggression.
Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson, supported the explicit threat of nuclear weapons to stop Soviet expansion and openly stated that nuclear weapons had "more bang for the buck" — they were cheaper than drafting young American males to fight in far away, unknown places.
To cultivate mass support, McCarthyist hysteria and paranoia toward foreign political forces with leftist-nationalist orientation was maintained throughout the 1950s, even after the domestic political scene had toned down. It is during the Eisenhower administration that a relatively unknown Cuban leftist organization, the July 26th Movement, fled to the Sierra Maestra with 12 guerrillas and eight guns. In 1956, no one in the United States knew that these young guerrillas existed or that within three years they would establish the first socialist state in the Western Hemisphere. In retrospect, the Cuban Revolution was inevitable, but that's hindsight.
U.S. foreign policymakers and experts simply did not know Caribbean politics. U.S. scholars had never studied the Caribbean Basin as an area of importance. Cuba was the least of their geopolitical concerns during the 1950s. However, U.S. involvement in Cuban politics was extensive from as early as the 1890s. The major leaders of the Cuban nationalist struggles during the 1880s and '90s, Jose Marti, Antonio Maceo and Maximo Gomez, warned their followers of the negative expansionist tendencies of the powerful neighbor to the north.
To counter internal division, Jose Marti founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1893. This mass party united 34 nationalist groups. Marti called for a single party system in 1895 before the concept was even discussed in Russia. The Cuban Revolutionary Party was tied to the Cuban Liberation Army, which consisted of and was led mainly by African/black Cubans. Other than Maximo Gomez, Antonio Maceo, an African-Cuban, was the most important general of the independence wars.
In fact, if you study Cuban history carefully, the dominant theme among Cuban nationalist forces was how to limit U.S. dominance within the island. The hardliners, Jose Marti and Antonio Maceo, died in combat during the third independence war (1895-98). Their anti-imperialist posture included anti-U.S. dominance, which became a major tendency in Cuban politics. Cuban nationalism was such a problem for U.S. political elites, it was the only Spanish colony allowed immediate formal independence after the Spanish-Cuban-American War in 1902.
From 1902 to 1959, the Cuban political system maintained an active left-nationalist tradition. The first Communist Party in the hemisphere was founded in 1921, and the most dynamic political organizations during the 1930s to '50s were leftist. With a very strong leftist-nationalist mass base, the Cuban political system either had to allow leftists to win elections or had to pervert the political system to prevent their success. From 1934 until 1959, the Cuban military interfered with and/or dominated the civil society. Fulgencio Batista, a military leader, eventually created a dictatorship that undermined all western democratic institutions in Cuba.
In 1952, a young Fidel Castro ran for the Cuban Senate as a member of the Orthodox Party, an ideological descendant of the Cuban Revolutionary Party. The Orthodox Party had an impressive showing. To the shock of all, Batista led a coup against the regime: In 1953-59, the Cuban government was dominated by Batista and the military. All right-wing parties tolerated, supported, and even profited from the Batista dictatorship.
The July 26th Movement was one of three major forces that opposed Batista; the other two were the National Student Directorate and the Popular Socialist Party. With mass support, the handful of guerrillas rapidly seized power. In January 1959, the leftist-nationalists were in power.
Fidel just did not fall out of the sky and impose his brand of fidelista politics. If you research modern Cuba, additional "Fidels" already exist and many more are coming. Cuban nationalism in Cuba will guarantee this. Fidelista politics is a merger of nationalism and socialist thought.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cuban government has been forced to open its economy to the global capitalist system. Cuba has been open for a decade.
It is not surprising that the Cuban government is pursuing its own self interests in the global tourism market and seeking to increase its market share in the Caribbean Basin. We would be wise to pay attention and make the appropriate adjustments. If a socialist regime can make concessions to capitalists, our capitalist society should also be able to make concessions to capitalists if we can benefit. Our tourism industry is linked to wise decisions by past governors and their ability to maximize the changes that emerged after the U.S. developed an anti-Cuba embargo. Again I must give some history.
Before 1959, the Virgin Islands tourism product was modest. The John Merwin administration (1958-1961) actually laid the groundwork for the tourist boom that the subsequent Ralph Paiewonsky administration (1962-69) was able to solidify. With great foresight and understanding, Governor Merwin developed a close working relationship with the Legislature and the executive branch. Merwin convinced the existing leadership to merge the efforts of the Department of Trade and Tourism and the Chamber of Commerce to market the Virgin Islands as a vacation spot.
Tourist promotion offices were established in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and New York City. The infrastructure was transformed: The waterfront on St. Thomas was completed, new roads were laid, and portable water lines and sewers were expanded. At precisely this period, the Fulgencio Batista regime fell to the July 26th Movement led by Fidel Castro. From January 1959, Cuba experienced a profound socioeconomic change or simply a revolution.
From the Prohibition period straight through the 1950s, a large percentage of mainland American tourists went to Cuba. Before the revolution, Cuba offered everything a modern tourist wanted, from wholesome hiking activities to less-reputable attractions such as gambling and prostitution. The Cuban Revolution and the strident anti-Communist posture of the
Eisenhower administration (and all subsequent administrations) led to the deterioration of relations between the United States and Cuba. The Cold War sabotaged Cuban tourism. These are only historical facts.
Every month delegations of American investors and professional organizations are visiting Cuba, offering lucrative trade contracts to the Cuban government. Even more important, major figures in the U.S. tourism industry are making the necessary inroads for a full normalization of travel and trade. I will give one important example.
Richard M. Copland, president of the American Society of Travel Agents. was in Cuba just the other day. He openly advocated the elimination of the ban on travel to Cuba! During a five-day trip, he visited the tourist areas of Havana, Varadero, Cayo Largo, Cayo Coco and Cayo Guillermo. The Spanish group Sol Melia operates 15 of the 22 top hotels. Although most of Cuba's tourists are German, Spanish, Canadian and Italian, a growing American market exists. In fact, Mr. Copland stated that once the travel ban is lifted from the U.S. side, one million U.S. citizens would travel to Cuba in the first year, rising to five million within five years.
U.S.-Cuban relations are being steadily normalized. Our political leaders need to read if they seek to lead. In the present election period, I am partially constrained in what I can say, given my very presence in "the mix." Nonetheless, I must state there is a big world out there, and the Virgin Islands people are not immune to external forces. Our leaders must be the most conscious of the global reality. Our question must be: How do we adjust to the new Cuban reality as well as a changed regional context for our tourism industry?
If in the past we were among the top 10 tourist destinations, today we may very well lose our position due to our lack of political will and consensus. An autonomous Tourism Board can be a starting point for serious approach to our tourism product. A serious budget for marketing would also help us ($30 million). Lastly, a two-pronged approach to crime will help: (1) greater resources to the criminal justice system, and (2) serious resources and attention to early intervention programs to at-risk children.
We cannot continue doing things the way we have been accustomed. Our leaders will have to rise to the occasion, or we shall all reap a harvest of economic ruin. Ironically, Fidel can change, and we can't. Cuba is open, and the Virgin Islands is becoming closed.
Malik Sekou
Senate candidate
St. Thomas

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