Brazil is betting on an eventual opening in Cuba. The bet is more than economic; it’s linked directly to a larger geopolitical project intended to draw Cuba toward its own model of economic and political organization as Cuba wakes up from its 55-year slumber under the Castro regime.
The process has already started with a series of market-oriented reforms initiated by Raúl Castro—brother to Fidel—and will only accelerate with the passing of the octogenarian Castro brothers and their guerrilla field comrades. Unfortunately, as Brazil engages in a wise game of hemispheric chess, the U.S. is playing solitaire: the result of the self-imposed embargo that has prevented economic, diplomatic and even routine contact with an island 90 miles away from the United States.
In the last five years, Brazil financed the majority of the $957 million deep water Mariel port project in the northwest of the island built by infrastructure giant Odebrecht. The port, and the 180-square-mile free-trade and development zone that surrounds it, is intended to service wide draft ships that will be able to pass through the expanded Panama Canal—a requirement that many U.S. ports won’t be able to meet when the updated canal completes its expansion by 2015. And it’s only the beginning. Recently, when he was in the country to tour the facility, former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced the acquisition of the iconic beer company Bucanero by the Brazilian beer giant, InBev, and there is talk that Brazil’s recent investments in Cuba’s Mariel port facility and free trade zone are only the tip of the iceberg.All of those investments are clearly—at their most basic—an effort to economically invest in the eventual lifting of the U.S. embargo. And why not? A mere 90 miles off the coast of Florida, Cuba is perfectly suited for massive U.S. investment in everything from tourism to production. It’s only a matter of time before the U.S. embargo is lifted.
Sadly, the U.S. is bound up in a half-century-old policy toward the island and has been pushed to the sidelines. This is more than just economics; it has to do with political influence in the hemisphere. And on this, the U.S. is on the losing side of history.
Our current Cuba policy—written into law as the Helms-Burton Act—has the U.S. not only tying its hands under some absolutist ideal of what a democracy should look like (which has never been applied in this level of stubborn rigidity to any other country—communist or right-wing authoritarian) but also eliminates the U.S.’s ability to positively shape the course of events in what is likely to be a protracted process of political change, rather than collapse. This vacuum has allowed Brazil to expand its regional leadership at the expense of the United States. The investments by Odebrecht and the trip by Lula are not just profit motivated. (In fact, according to one Brazilian businessman they are going ahead only because of the encouragement of the Brazilian government and the funding of the Brazilian development bank, BNDES.) Rather, this is straight up economic diplomacy, a plan to gain influence on the island that will create a role for Brazil as a broker for Cuba’s future after the Venezuelan lifeline that former President Hugo Chávez threw the Cuban regime breaks—and it will. As one Cuban economist recently told us, “Cuba has a new benefactor; it’s not Venezuela, it’s Brazil.”
Of course just being on the wrong side of history isn’t a sin—as long as we are on the right side of principle. But we’re not. While the U.S. drags its feet in adapting the embargo to support an incipient non-state sector, more Cubans suffer under the failed economic project of the Castro brothers.
In the end, the question the U.S. and U.S. citizens need to ask themselves is if by waiting for an ideal-type dream of democracy in Cuba, the country is more likely to create a post-Castro Cuba that will look more like Brazil than the United States. For anyone who has chafed at Brazil’s moral hypocrisy in countries like Venezuela and its moral cowardice in situations like those in Syria, Russia-Crimea, and Libya, this should be an easy answer. Any conversation with Cubans shows where the hearts and minds of most residents on the island lie—and they ain’t with the samba.
So, is the U.S. willing to leverage its cultural, economic, and moral capital in a broader regional game? Let’s hope so—because clearly, Brazil isn’t waiting, though against the odds, it may be winning.