It seems that every other email or call I receive, checking in to see how I and SRAS are doing includes a remark along the lines of “this must be just torture for you to be in one place this long.” Indeed, it is the longest stretch of time without travel since perhaps when my children were extremely young. I feel a bit out of rhythm, like I should be scrambling to clear my inbox and pack for a trip. I finally have the very thing I crave when I am busy with travel – extended periods of time during which I can focus on bigger projects. And yet, when my mind drifts, it tends to be either to memories of past travels or to where I will go next, as soon as it is possible.
Havana is high on my travel list. Somehow I can’t get enough of the place. Perhaps it is because I feel there is still so much to be learned not only about Cuba, but also about the world itself from the perspective of Cuba.
The Island of Doctors
As COVID-19 spread across the globe, I was curious to see how this would play out in Cuba. It is an island, one that even when it does not want to be, is isolated from much of the world, be it by politics or distance. The Cuban people themselves are not highly mobile. Cuba also has a very high ratio of doctors within its population and has active institutions known for developing vaccines and medical treatments.
Cuba has existed in a state of preparedness and discipline for many years, something that has spared them from the worst of the devastation from other natural disasters – like hurricanes – at least in terms of lives lost.
Nonetheless, despite sanctions, tourism is a very large part of the Cuban economy and it follows that while there is not so much outward mobility, tourists do pass through. Thus, in mid-March, Cuba registered its first cases of COVID-19 and joined the rest of the world in the global fight against the virus.
In Cuba-Russia Connection: Studies in Cultural Diplomacy we look at the many forms public diplomacy can take. Russia and Cuba provide us with a wealth of case studies and one unique example is medical diplomacy. This has been a long-standing tradition of Cuba, initially offered in “solidarity” (i.e., diplomacy) but then transformed (as professional services) into what is now one of the largest parts of Cuba’s GDP.
It has been fascinating to observe how Cuba has returned to the playbook of medical diplomacy in this crisis. Most of us (in the US) will only see a few articles about the Cuban doctors who are traveling to Italy and around the Caribbean to provide valuable assistance. However, Cuba is broadcasting this action as loudly as possible, and it gets picked up by some other publications. Mainly I see this in the social media of my Cuban acquaintances. Some stories simply highlight the brave service of the Cuban doctors. Others draw attention to the immorality of continued sanctions against Cuba in a time of pandemic, stressing that they make importing medicine and equipment more difficult. Still other stories highlight Inteferon Alpha-2B, a drug that Cuba played a large role in developing and which is now being used to treat COVID-19 around the world.
Ramping up Diversification
I had an interesting discussion recently with a colleague in Havana, a young professor of economics at University of Havana who also works in the private tourism sector. While our objective was to update our program for 2021, logically much of the discussion centered around the Cuban economy and the current challenges it faces. He stressed that it is becoming clearer to the population that Cuba cannot be so dependent on tourism. The natural client base in the US, 90 miles away, cannot be relied on, with political winds changing with each administration. The huge investments being made in the tourism sector need to be diverted so that the economy can diversify. Their identity as a medical powerhouse should be used to further promote the biotech sector. Investment in agriculture is also critical.
Perhaps most importantly, as it affects all sectors of the economy, investments in IT are long-overdue. COVID-19 has illustrated to the world the critical role of IT infrastructure. As classes, businesses, and offices went online across the world, it became clear that this would create greater gaps between the IT “haves” and the IT “have-nots.” Cuba is almost wholly in the “have not” category when it comes to IT infrastructure, severely limiting the ability of an otherwise very talented workforce to compete in the global economy – and particularly under social distancing conditions.
Not Another Beach
Cuba can’t just be another exotic beach destination. The potential of the island is way beyond that. As is the case anywhere, there have been forces against change, and these chains hold it back. We are seeing a global trend, however, of these chains snapping – in education, medicine, and more. I hope this is the black swan event that becomes a game changer for Cuba.