BY JACQUELINE CHARLES | Miami Herald
The earthy smell of Cuban-grown tobacco wafts through the crowded downtown nightspot as cigar-smoking locals and Cuban officials exchange pleasantries—and try to cut trade deals.
This is not a scene that Cuban Americans in South Florida would appreciate as an exercise in Caribbean solidarity, although that is how many Bahamians, and others around the world, see it.
For years, the Bahamas has walked a diplomatic tightrope between its indispensable economic relationship with the United States and a budding alliance with communist Cuba. The recent detention of two Cuban dentists at its notorious Carmichael Road detention center tripped up the relationship and stirred calls by Cuban exiles for a tourism boycott of the Bahamian destination.
For many exiles, it brought into question why the Bahamas—which generates $1.7 billion in trade with the United States, most of it with Florida—would cozy up to Fidel Castro.
The Cuban president has courted his mostly English-speaking Caribbean neighbors with doctors, teachers and free trade in rum, coffee and cement.
‘‘Why shouldn’t we trade with Cuba?’’ said Arthur Foulkes, a founding member of the Bahamas’ opposition Free National Movement political party.
SOL CARIBE: Cuban band from Havana, perform for vacationers at the Flamingo Cafe in downtown Nassau.
FELIPE MAJOR/FOR THE MIAMI HERALD
The saga involving the detained dentists strained relations with the United States and Cuba. The dentists had visas allowing them to enter the United States, but they were denied exit permits by Cuba. They then attempted to leave by boat—only to wash up in the Bahamas.
Under a treaty, the Cuban government has 15 days after the Bahamas notifies Cuban officials about migrants to decide whether to demand their return. The dentists were detained for almost a year at Carmichael Road, drawing the attention of Cuban exiles in Miami. A South Florida Spanish-language TV reporter who went to investigate the matter was then allegedly beaten by a detention-center guard, further angering exiles, some of whom urged a boycott.
The dentists, Marialys Darias Mesa and David González, were freed last month after members of Congress, particularly South Florida’s Cuban-American members and Rep. Connie Mack of Fort Myers, intervened. They now live with their families in Florida.
To refugee advocates, the dentists’ ordeal was yet another example of how shabbily Cubans, Haitians and others are treated in the Bahamian island chain, where Cuban cigars and Havana Club rum are as ubiquitous as native spicy conch.
To Bahamians like Foulkes, and members of the governing Progressive Liberal Party, the matter was an unfortunate incident in a geopolitical drama that the tiny nation of 301,790 people has long tried to avoid.
Many here saw the exiles’ calls for a boycott as a failed tactic to force the Bahamas to fall in step with U.S. policies toward Cuba.
‘As a Bahamian, I deeply resented when people in Florida threatened the Bahamas with sanctions, threatened the Bahamas that they will have the American government remove the preclearance at the airport, threatened the Bahamas that `we’ll stop the cruise ships,’ ‘’ said Foulkes, who served as a nonresident ambassador to China and Cuba from 1999 to 2002. ``That’s counterproductive. That only makes you angry.’‘
With 50 miles separating Bimini from the South Florida coast and only eight miles separating Cay Lobos from Cuba’s northern coast, the Bahamas is by far the closest neighbor to both countries. Bahamians argue that their country needs to have good relations with both.
About 20,000 Bahamians a year travel to Cuba for vacation and medical care, said Bahamian Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell. Bahamian business people are looking for additional opportunities, as evidenced by a recent two-day Cuba trade conference at a Paradise Island hotel.
At the same time, the Bahamas does about $1.1 billion in two-way trade with Florida.
The Bahamas isn’t the only small nation in the region with increasing ties to the United States’ nemesis. Others have signed agreements with Cuba as well as with oil-rich Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez has been blasting U.S. policy in the region.
According to reports by the Caribbean Community, an estimated 2,606 students from the region are studying in Cuba, and trade between Cuba and its Caribbean neighbors amounts to $26.5 million.
After a recent meeting in Nassau with Mitchell and Caribbean foreign ministers, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she had not come to dictate diplomatic relations. But Rice made the U.S. position on Cuba trade and travel very clear.
Highlighting its warmer relations, Cuba last year upgraded its consul general to an ambassador, and the Bahamas—which recently named a resident ambassador to Cuba—plans to open an embassy in Havana in coming weeks. Also, about 300 Bahamians recently received free eye surgery, courtesy of the Cuban government.
Trade between Cuba and the Bahamas remains on a small scale, mostly isolated to a few niche products that account for $1.6 million in goods that Bahamians bring from Cuba. Many of those products can be found at Flamingo Cigar & Gourmet Cafe, an upscale cigar bar in the downtown tourist district.
Lined with made-in-Cuba mahogany furnishings, it offers a variety of products, including $995 Cuban paintings, $5 Cristal and Buccanero beer, and $10 packages of Cubita coffee. It is a favorite stop for tourists, as well as locals and Cuban diplomats who recently kicked off a trade conference with an informal Friday night gathering featuring Sol Caribe, a band from Havana.
Owner Garth Bethel said the Cuban products, acquired during his monthly trips to Cuba, are by far his most popular items.
‘‘I see unlimited potential to do so many things there,’’ Bethel said, sitting upstairs in the Havana Club VIP lounge.
Yet some Cubans—the population in the Bahamas numbers about 300—who come to Bethel’s weekend parties to sip mojitos admit privately that they are torn. They see the trade benefits for the Bahamas, but not for the millions of Cubans who live in a state-run economy.
Bahamian business leaders point to Americans’ own trade dealings and ask: Is doing business with Cuba any less reprehensible than doing business with communist China?
‘‘It’s the same for the Bahamas as it is for the United States. It’s difficult to really criticize,’’ said Philip Simon, executive director of the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce.
Doing business with Cuba isn’t easy, and many Bahamian business people are reluctant to advertise their Cuba dealings.
‘‘Doing business there is so difficult, from banking, payments, shipping, to the language barrier,’’ said Tennyson Wells, an independent member of the Bahamian Parliament who has been at the forefront of trading with Cuba.
‘‘If [the Cubans] were to change their system of doing business to bring it in line with what the Chinese are doing, then I believe Cuba would have tremendous potential,’’ said Wells, a lawyer and developer. ``Unless the Cubans make it easier to buy and sell, I don’t think much will happen.’’