The year 2015 was very significant in the history of modern Cuba. It looks like 2016 will bring about even more change, and change at an accelerating rate. Just a little over 12 months ago–on December 17, 2014–President Obama and President Raul Castro made televised announcements in their respective countries. They both stated that negotiations had been under way for a couple of years, with the goal of beginning the process of normalization between the governments of both countries.
The negotiations were coordinated and facilitated by both Pope Francis and the government of Canada, two entities that many Americans admire. The process of normalization is often confused with “ending the embargo.” The embargo is a matter of law, and must be ended by a vote of Congress, so it may not end for a long time. However, it has always been full of holes, exceptions, and exemptions. It has been selectively enforced and widely ignored, depending on what the specific issue was and who wanted to violate or ignore it. As you can imagine, huge cash payoffs and favors for key figures in both countries have likely determined the real outcome of individual parts of the embargo.
The process of normalization involves baby steps taken by both governments to gradually become more civil to each other, while agreeing to disagree on certain key issues. Some steps have been taken by executive action (the next American president may reverse them). Other steps involved ignoring and/or not enforcing certain laws and regulations. Both Obama and Castro have had to deal with hardline dissenters in both countries. In my opinion, significant change is rapidly occurring at the people-to-people level. It appears to be much slower between the governments, although things are still mostly moving forward.
Here is an example to illustrate this phenomenon: Beginning in 2015, the U.S. government graciously began to allow Americans to legally bring back $100 worth of rum and cigars. Before that, it was illegal. Since the only punishment (in the unlikely event you got caught) was confiscation, it was very common for Cuba visitors to bring back these items (but not listing them on their customs forms). Today, many visitors bring back much more than $100 worth of these items. (Rum is heavy; thus it is self-limiting. However, a backpack full of premium Cuban cigars can easily exceed this limit.) No worries—the entrepreneurial, non-governmental solution for American travelers is to simply ask a Cuban to write out a different receipt for “Cuban cigars costing USD $95.” In US customs, the traveler would claim $95 worth of Cuban cigars on his customs forms. In the unlikely event he is asked for proof, he pulls out his receipt for $95. This solution works well for everybody involved: The Cubans who produced the cigars, the Americans who bought them, the customs officers (who have much more important things to deal with), and the U.S. government bureaucracy. Numerous officials at various levels can justify their positions writing, approving, and updating hundreds pages of regulations. And finally, the Obama Administration can take credit for a small, “baby-step” towards normalization.
Personally–I think it is wonderful to see libertarian, free-market citizens of both countries create work-arounds to the multitude of bureaucratic and complicated, counter-productive laws, guidelines, and regulations (which in many ways are similar to the U.S. Tax Code). So if the next US president tries to reverse normalization, it may mean more expense, delays, and problems for big companies, but not for individual Cubans or Americans. There is really no need to fight a slow, lumbering giant, stuck in the mud—when you can simply just go around it!
So even if the next U.S. President reverses all of President Obama’s recent executive orders regarding Cuba, it will mostly be symbolic. There was a 50% increase in the number of American visitors in 2015 compared with 2014. This incredible rate is projected to continue to increase each year indefinitely. Hotel rates in Havana will continue to skyrocket, but the availability of bed-and-breakfast accommodations in refurbished Cuban homes is also increasing substantially. Outside of Havana–in the countryside, and in Central and Eastern Cuba–there is a fascinating country full of friendly and hospitable Cubans looking forward to meeting more Americans. I’ve driven the island from tip to tip, and I can assure you the entire country is a fascinating and wonderful place to visit.