LA ALBORADA: The natural (and asymetrical) order of things
- The natural (and asymetrical) order of things
La Alborada - March 1
It's good to hear that the Merrimack (NH) Chamber of Commerce is planning to hold a fund-raising activity in Cuba. Those who sign up for the trip will take part in a people-to-people exchange, visiting Havana --including the Museum of the Revolution-- and the Valley of Viñales.
However, we wonder about an odd perspective on the trip offered by Deb Courtemanche, the Chamber's executive director. "The belief is that it’s going to be changing soon,” she said. “We want to get there before there’s a Starbucks on every corner."
She was seconded by Ian Scott, who leads Chamber Explorations in California, the firm that organizes the trip: “It’s about the only place in the world where you don’t have a McDonalds everywhere,” he stated.
They seem to have in mind an inevitable chain of events and ideas: 1) Relations between the US and Cuba improve, perhaps even to the level of normalization. 2) Cuba's change from old to new means necessarily that it opens to neoliberalism and investments by whatever US-based companies want to invest, mainly on their own terms. Starbucks, for example, will walk into Havana and start placing its stores "on every corner," maybe a few in Old Havana, some at Central Park near the Capitol, and others inside tourist hotels. Why not around Revolution Plaza? 3) In fact, Starbucks is just an example, and surely KFC and Pizza Hut will do likewise. From Havana, it will be on to Cienfuegos, Camagüey, and Santiago. 4) This process will develop on its own.
Why would this happen? Because, apparently, having normal relations means that US companies will flood Cuba with its outlets, as in Mexico or Peru. Why wouldn't real estate companies buy up the waterfront along the Malecon and build high-rise condos blocking the view of the sea for everyone else in the city, as in Miami? Isn't that the natural order of things?
Starbucks reported in January on its Fiscal First Quarter 2013: "Total net revenues increased 11% to a record $3.8 billion." Would it be able to compete with start-up coffee shops run on a shoestring by the new Cuban entrepreneurs? Of course.
Yesterday, McDonald's market capitalization stood at $96 billion. Cuba's gross domestic product at the official exchange rate was estimated (CIA Factbook) for 2010 at $57.49 billion. Let's say it's $60 billion by now. Would McDonald's have enough capital to compete with the new fast-food vendors, even the State enterprises? Obviously; that one company is worth more than Cuba's entire GDP for one year.
Cuba has expressed interest in buying foodstuffs from the nearby US. It probably wants to look at heavy machinery, machine tools, and other productive equipment. It cannot be as interested in having its new internal markets overwhelmed by transnational corporations, which is what the Chamber of Commerce and Chamber Explorations expect –reasonably enough, given the postulates of "free" trade between large and small countries.
Cuba might be offered reciprocal possibilities. Its rum and cigars would sell well in the US, and maybe there could be Bodeguitas and Floriditas, one each in a few cities. In no case could Cuba take over a domestic market of the US.
This divergence of interests is one of many foreseeable contradictions that will arise even if relations improve significantly. It's also an indication of how even well-intended neighbors look at Cuba as a new avenue for the expansion of US-based corporations. Courtemanche implied that she was not thinking of business: “In Cuba, it’s all about the people; in China, it was more about the commerce. In Cuba we’re learning about the people, the life, engaging in the culture and the art,” she said. But she meant that they are doing so before what she sees as inevitable happens.
Improved relations between the US and Cuba will present commercial benefits for both countries. Just what those would be, is not yet clear. The focus now should be on beginning to end the blockade. We can count the chickens later, after they hatch.