Down, But Certainly Not Out
Down, But Certainly Not Out
Newspaper headlines suggest globalisation is in trouble if not nearing its end, as trade and global connectivity face strong headwinds in the developed west. But something very different seems to be happening among Cold War survivors, who for long had been left out of the global web. Vietnam, the country that was once a synonym for war and isolated for decades, has enthusiastically embraced the latest US-led trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Cuba, another revolutionary country long isolated because of the American trade embargo, is the newest aspirant at the door of globalisation. The symbolic key to the door was handed over by President Barack Obama on his icebreaking visit to Havana.
Though the 55-year-old trade embargo against Cuba is still in place (only the Congress can remove it), Obama has used his remaining months in power to exercise executive authority to crack open the door — easing travels, communications, financial transactions and investments. He hopes that over time pressure from Cubans in the US and the enthusiasm of a long deprived nation could swell the trickle that began this month into a stream.
Cuban eagerness to join the world can be seen in Havana street corners where the government has set up Wi-Fi hotspots. (Only 4 per cent Cuban household have access to the Internet and for the city of two million there are 25 such hotspots.) Hundreds gather with their smartphones and tablets to email relatives, access Facebook and call relatives abroad. They use government issued data cards paying $2 for an hour of talk time. Given that an hour worth of connectivity costs a tenth of their average monthly salary, the crowds gathering at hotspots are an indication of the thirst for connection.
The government plans to set up more hotspots all over Cuba to meet the surging demand. For a country with near universal literacy and high levels of college educated citizens with very limited employment opportunities Internet is seen as the most important gateway to success. The socialist system’s accomplishment of free education and healthcare as well as its failure to generate appropriate jobs can be seen in every sphere of life. I encountered a trained architect working as a hotel boy and in one local restaurant I found the chef was a trained nuclear engineer!
In preparation for the normalisation of relations the US has slowly lifted the restrictions on US citizens and residents travelling to Cuba, first allowing group travel for people-to-people contact and more recently individual travel. Later this year, US airlines will start flying 110 flights a day to Cuba bringing in hundreds of travelers in addition to cruise liners disgorging thousands. In view of the limited capacity of hotels in the country that once used to be the gambling and entertainment capital of America’s rich, the government has eased the setting up of B&B by families. All over central Havana and other major cities B&B symbols proliferate in rich and not-so-well-off neighbourhoods.
The more enterprising citizens have applied Cuban versions of jugaad, a work-around, to set up Airbnb with the help of relatives and friends abroad. One taxi driver remarked that there are no car engineers in Havana but there are magicians who have maintained 50-year-old American classic cars as Havana’s taxi fleet. The latest US relaxation allowing Cubans to hold dollar accounts in the US will help unleash their entrepreneurial spirit.
Cubans whose national sport, like in the US, is baseball are excited to host a game against an American team on the occasion of Obama’s visit, which also coincided with a Rolling Stones concert. The cultural openings and Wi-Fi hotspots could mark the beginning of Cuba joining globalisation.
Nayan Chanda is the author of Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers and Warriors Shaped Globalization and is consulting editor of YaleGlobal Online, published by the MacMillan Center, Yale University.