Foreign Policy Blogs

Cuba hits the front page, but is Washington reading?

I was rather surprised to see a Cuba headline make it to the front page of the New York Times recently.

The surprise is not because the placement is unmerited: indeed, such attention is quite timely and relevant. It is due to the fact that Washington still seems to be deaf to all of the changes occurring this year in Cuba. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced her intention to visit Burma on December 1 and 2 to meet with government and opposition leaders: she will be the first Secretary of State to visit the country in 50 years, and is doing so as a risky diplomatic bet, saying that she wishes to “test what the true intentions are [of the regime] and whether there is a commitment to both economic and political reform.” Tim LaRocco takes a look at these reforms here, by the way, and readers are quick to point out the fragility of the current positive international perspective on the nation.

But whether they’re fragile, overblown, on-target or off, Secretary Clinton is going in to check it out. Hey, Secretary! Take a look closer to home, too!

The broad, sweeping economic reforms in Cuba are having what appears to be an impressive impact. Rhetoric is converting at long last into concerted action. Not only have real estate and automobile sales been legalized, and private farmers authorized to sell directly to hotels and tourist industries, but Cuban authorities are rooting out long-entrenched corruption in many sectors in favor of reform.

A fight against corruption is of course a necessary element in the overhaul of an economy fraught with redundancies and inefficiencies. And despite the fact that Cuba continues to be in desperate need of foreign investment, Raúl is taking a principled stance: the crackdown on corruption scrutinizes and punishes foreign offenders, as well as Cuba officials. His Attorney General, Dario Delgado, insists that: “This is not a campaign, what is happening in the fight against corruption… This is permanent. This is systemic.” Havana is changing the rules of doing business, and doing so with great gusto with an eye to the future, even in a difficult economic time.

It is worth noting that many onlookers are skeptical about the nature of the crackdown, and the fairness (or unfairness) with which it is being executed. Foreign small businesses operating in Cuba are reporting their fear of being particular targets. But for years, any corruption arrests were practically limited to Cubans. The current more comprehensive review as conceptualized is vital, even if it ends up deterring some foreign investment.

My advice, and a perspective shared by some of the top economists on the island (including Omar Everleny Perez): the government must simultaneously encourage increased foreign investment and make the rules of operating in Cuba quite clear — and then maintain those rules of the game — to bolster the positive economic impact that the many reforms coming into effect will have on the island and mitigate the otherwise negative impact that a corruption crackdown scare will have. It is not clear yet whether Havana recognizes this need.

  • Rich Haney

    Ms. Fortner,
    This is an excellent, fair, and balanced analysis of what’s happening in Cuba. You are correct to exhibit “surprise” that the NY Time would feature a somewhat positive article about Cuba on its front page and you are correct to point out that the U. S. Secretary of State lines up visits to countries like faraway Burma while never considering an outreach or overture to nearby Cuba. I believe that is because no overthrown U. S. – backed dictatorship in Burma reconstituted itself on U. S. soil, as the Batista dictatorship in Cuba surely did, namely in South Florida. I am not a promoter at all, but I would like your view regarding my current posting on my blog, which is I am a conservative Republican from Virgnia, I have visited Cuba courtesy of the George W. Bush administration, I wrote the Celia Sanchez biography, etc.

    • Melissa Lockhart Fortner

      Hello Rich (if I may),

      Many thanks for your kind note, and your insightful points about the uniquely interconnected nature of the United States and Cuba, given the exile community migration to Florida. You’re quite right that this makes the relationship considerably more complex than that with a country like Burma, and complex often means tangled — in this case in a web of outdated policies that the United States finds itself unable to sort through.


    Mr Haney I’m a Cuban American and I agree with you 100% ., it is time to move on and not only stop the insanity of Washington but also help our pepole here with more open relations with Cuba . The USA suported Batista and he was the most brutal president that I can remember.Thankyou for your report Millie


Melissa Lockhart Fortner
Melissa Lockhart Fortner

Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior External Affairs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, having served previously as Senior Programs Officer for the Council. From 2007-2009, she held a research position at the University of Southern California (USC) School of International Relations, where she closely followed economic and political developments in Mexico and in Cuba, and analyzed broader Latin American trends. Her research considered the rise and relative successes of Latin American multinationals (multilatinas); economic, social and political changes in Central America since the civil wars in the region; and Wal-Mart’s role in Latin America, among other topics. Melissa is a graduate of Pomona College, and currently resides in Pasadena, California, with her husband, Jeff Fortner.

Follow her on Twitter @LockhartFortner.