Paintings for sale in the street in Havana, Cuba, in April 2015. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

Paintings for sale in the street in Havana, Cuba, in April 2015. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

By Pascal Fletcher

In the early summer of 1999, I was summoned for an interview with one of Cuba’s top economic officials, then External Trade Minister Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz.

When I arrived at his offices in steamy downtown Havana, I sensed something was wrong.

The balding, generally genial Cabrisas was stern and reserved. I saw he had with him his official interpreter for English, even though the minister knew I spoke Spanish well after more than a decade in Cuba as a correspondent for Reuters and the Financial Times.

Instead of an interview I received an hour-long tongue lashing — duly translated into twangy Caribbean English — about an article I had written for the FT about how close Cuba had come to defaulting on a $16 million loan from a British bank.

I had learned directly from the UK bank’s negotiator that the formal default — which would have been catastrophic for U.S.-embargoed Cuba’s already battered credit image — was averted only hours before deadline by a complex repayment deal.

This involved contracted sales of part of the island’s strategic sugar crop to a British commodities trading firm which had cloaked its operations on the island by using a Paris-based corporate disguise.

The UK company had adopted this disguise to try to avoid the reach of the 1996 U.S. Helms Burton law that threatened penalties against foreign companies “trafficking” in expropriated U.S. properties or assets.

It was just one more layer of the tangle of legislation forming the now five decades-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba.

With its impeccable source, the story was 100 percent accurate. But that was of little concern to Cabrisas, who raged at me for revealing “secret” economic information.

“This is a son of a bitch article of news that only serves the interests of the Helms-Burton Law,” he said.

But a reality check shows that many of the same obstacles and suspicions I faced in Cuba are still very much alive.

Nearly two years later, I was forced to leave the island with my Cuban family, accused among other things of “sabotaging trade negotiations” by writing articles such as the one on the sugar-based debt repayment deal.

Fast forward 15 years.

In an historic shift of U.S. policy announced last December, U.S. President Barack Obama is rebooting U.S.-Cuban ties with a restoration of formal diplomatic relations and a call for the U.S. embargo to be lifted.

Obama argues Havana no longer represents a dangerous enemy for the United States (hence, Cuba’s recent removal from the U.S. list of countries judged to be state sponsors of terrorism).

The initiative, sealed by a handshake in April between Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro and accompanied by initial U.S. regulation changes making travel and some trade with Cuba easier already, has touched off a frenzy of interest in the island from U.S. businesses and investors, from corn and soy exporters to tourism, real estate and telecoms developers.

Business plans and studies of Cuba, prepared in earlier years even as Canadian, European, Asian and Latin American competitors piled into a market cautiously opened after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, are being hurriedly dusted off.

American visitors to Cuba, from socialite Paris Hilton to Google executives, have jumped by more than 30 percent this year even though mass U.S. tourism still remains barred.

Early deals announced have included one for direct telecoms links, plans to restart ferry services and Cuba’s inclusion in a U.S. online accommodation booking service. Many more proposals are sitting ready on U.S. executives’ desktops.

Restoration of formal embassies in Havana and Washington announced this week will undoubtedly put U.S.-Cuban relations on a better footing.

But a reality check shows that many of the same obstacles and suspicions I faced in Cuba are still very much alive.

A Cuban flag flies near the U.S. Interests Section building, in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)

The U.S. economic embargo against the island, a Gordian Knot of legislation that curbs U.S. credit and financing to Cuba and nominally bars full normalization of relations while the Castro brothers, Raul and Fidel, are in government, is still in place and requires congressional approval to be removed.

Vociferous opponents of Obama’s Cuba initiative in the Republican-dominated Congress have signaled their intention to fight the embargo’s lifting and have pushed bills seeking to roll back some of the early advances made by the Obama Administration.

President Raul Castro has made clear that, without a full lifting of the embargo, there can be no full normalization of relations.

With the free flow of U.S. credit and funds to Cuba currently blocked by the embargo laws, U.S. investors and exporters risk not being able to muster the financial firepower they need to clinch major deals in Cuba.

So far Havana has been able to count on generous government-to-government financing from political friends.

They include Brazil (the main development partner in Cuba’s Mariel port free-trade zone), China (a major supplier and investor on the island), Russia (which forgave a big chunk of Cuba’s old Soviet-era debts) and close ally Venezuela, Cuba’s main crude oil supplier and economic mainstay in recent years, although this is now threatened by Venezuela’s own economic and political turmoil.

While few deny the potential of this relatively undeveloped and conveniently nearby market of 11 million, even for the braver U.S. investor Cuba looks high-risk.

That’s because it has a history of periodic liquidity crunches (the Cubans have not shirked in the past from freezing foreign investors’ bank accounts), payment delays and near defaults, not to mention restrictive labor rules and “Big Brother” government partners in almost all ventures.

More than a few European and Latin American investors can tell cautionary tales of having their assets confiscated and even of doing time in Cuban jails after becoming entangled in anti-corruption purges and vague, ill-defined accusations of economic sabotage and spying.

The path to full “normalization” is likely to be slow and rocky.

Mistrust on both sides remains high.

Obama Administration officials have since December argued that a more open U.S. policy towards Cuba and increased American travel and trade will, as if by osmosis, prize open Cuba’s one-party communist system and push the island towards greater democratic freedoms.

Critics of the Obama policy say this hoped-for “democratic dividend” of closer engagement has not occurred elsewhere, neither in China nor Vietnam. Nor even in staunch U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia.

Six months after Obama’s normalization announcement, arrests and persecutions of dissidents by Cuba’s government appear to continue, a sign Havana will not allow itself to be fooled by any “regime-change” intentions concealed in the siren song of better relations.

President Raul Castro, although seen as more pragmatic than his viscerally anti-American elder brother Fidel whom he replaced in 2008, has stated his country has no intention of giving up its “principles” — official Cuban shorthand for its socialist system — as the price for improved ties with Washington.

Defiant nationalism, especially as a bulwark to attempted interference and dominance by the powerful northern neighbor, has been part of Cuba’s political DNA since its 1902 independence and was also a driving force of the Castros’ 1959 Revolution.

After decades resisting what the Cuban leadership called a political and economic “war” waged by Washington, this spirit remains strong.

Behind the smiling greetings and handshakes, U.S. diplomats and businessmen can expect to find in their Cuban hosts a steely determination to resist meddling and keep Cuban assets in Cuban hands.

Former Trade Minister Cabrisas, now a vice president in Raul Castro’s cabinet, would probably view me today with the same prickly suspicion as when he berated me for my “son of a bitch” article some 15 years ago.

So even as the flags go up at the new full Cuban and U.S. embassies, the path to full “normalization” is likely to be slow and rocky, potentially fraught with obstacles and even the possibility of slips back to the hostility of the Cold War years.

It will take time for trust, friendship and an awareness of mutual benefit to permeate and conquer decades of suspicion and enmity.

With millions of Cubans and Americans on both sides of the Florida Straits, I’ll be looking forward to the day when the two sides can put the past behind them and embrace without reserve as friendly good neighbors.


Pascal Fletcher

Pascal Fletcher has more than 30 years reporting from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa, mostly with Reuters and also the Financial Times. He covered Cuba from 1989 to 2001 and served three stints in Africa covering the African National Congress in exile and wars in Angola and Mozambique; elections, coups and economic development in West Africa; and as bureau chief for Sub-Saharan Africa, Islamist insurgencies in Mali and Nigeria and the death of Nelson Mandela.

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