More than 120 years ago, Winston Churchill sailed to Cuba. While there, he dreamt of a country ‘free and prosperous…throwing open her ports to the commerce of the world, sending her ponies to Hurlingham and her cricketers to Lords.’ Now, in spite of Cuba’s communist revolution, the British government seems to have the same optimistic view as Churchill. But is it right to do so?
On Sunday, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall landed in Havana. Their tour is the first official royal appointment in Cuba, a four-day trip the British government hopes will strengthen economic and diplomatic relations with the communist country. The royal trip may be historic, but no matter how you spin it, commercially, it is a complete waste of time. British GDP is 3,000 times larger than Cuba’s and our economies are almost incomparable. The UK has a modern, services-based economy; Cuba relies on exporting doctors to its allies, importing bargain-price oil from Venezuela, remittances from families abroad and international tourism. The Cuban state and the military closely oversee enterprise, and a fledging private sector is subject to continuous regulatory uncertainty.
Presumably the British government believes the relative liberalisation of the Cuban economy, a process that began during Raúl Castro’s presidency (2008-18), is an opportunity for British businesses. Yet while there is potential for collaboration in sectors such as technology (the highest estimates suggest 40 per cent of Cubans are online, compared to 82 per cent of Brits), the commercial environment in Cuba is far from ready for major foreign investment. Cuba remains a labyrinthine bureaucracy; and despite a fresh-faced president – Miguel Díaz-Canel is 58 –geriatric Communist party grandees remain sceptical of reform.
If there is little commercial upside to forging closer ties with Cuba, in other areas there are major downsides. At the same time as Britain seeks a favourable trade deal from Washington, the royal visit to Cuba needlessly drives a further wedge in the Anglo-American alliance. One of Trump’s few policies with broad bipartisan appeal is his decision to impose tough sanctions on the government of crisis-ridden Venezuela, a government that receives crucial support from Cuba; support Trump has condemned. As another campaign cycle looms next year, he is unlikely to look kindly on anything that undermines what could be the major foreign policy success of his first term.
With Britain preparing to exit the European Union, there are more important global trade partnerships to develop than with an economy that has yet to join the internet age. These relationships are worth prioritising ahead of the possibility of minimal economic returns from Cuba.
What’s more, the royal tour has demonstrated a total inconsistency in the Foreign Office’s Latin America strategy. Last month, Britain recognised Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president in Caracas, in effect calling Maduro a dictator. Meanwhile, Cuba continues to stand by its allies in the United Socialist party of Venezuela, reportedly providing vital military and intelligence resources to the Maduro dictatorship. The Venezuelan army and security services, which are greatly indebted to Cuban expertise, are the only protectors keeping Maduro in power. So if the UK really does seek a return to democracy in Venezuela, unless the royal visit leads to a change in Cuba’s policy towards Venezuela, sending the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall to Cuba risks providing tacit support to Maduro.
If bilateral relations could be viewed in isolation, then there might be some merit to the UK’s policy towards Cuba. Britain has maintained diplomatic relations with the island, and one need only look at the six-decade failure of the US embargo to see that dialogue is almost always preferable to antagonism. Yet a good relationship with Cuba and collaboration in areas like education, conservation and heritage restoration does not require a royal visit.
Having pulled off a major diplomatic coup in securing a four-day royal tour as well as the prospect of much-needed investment, Cuba, not Britain, is the big winner. Surely there are more important places for Britain to project soft power than in Havana. The country with the fifth highest GDP in the world is courting one that, if estimates are to be believed, sits between Ecuador and Ethiopia. Framing this poorly-drawn policy canvas is Britain’s departure from the EU. The government waxes lyrical about how, after Brexit, Britain can be truly global again. Will deeper ties to Cuba make any difference? I doubt it.
At this crucial moment, when Britain urgently needs to shape its future in the world, there is absolutely no justification – commercial, diplomatic or strategic – for sending the royal couple to Cuba.
Daniel Rey is the author of Checkmate or Top Trumps: Cuba’s Geopolitical Game of the Century