When asked which of the Caribbean islands is the most beautiful, the debate is endless and almost always without consensus. Barack Obama may well change that. Very few travelers who have hiked the trails through La Sierra de los Organos to the spectacular Vinales Valley, or strolled the white sands of Varadero will vote for anyplace other than Cuba. The only factor standing between Cuba being a travel destination of choice for the U.S. traveler is of course, the U.S. Policy toward Cuba.
But what if the U.S. Policy would change? What are the implications for Cuba, as well as the Bahamas and the Caribbean nations whose economies depend almost entirely on tourism? When Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States on January 20, 2009, there will be change. Only the nature and pace of the change is as of yet unknown.
During a campaign swing through Miami, celebrating Cuban Independence Day, Obama said, “My policy toward Cuba will be guided by one word: ‘libertad,’ the Spanish word for liberty. His promise to the Cuban-Americans was to lower travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans visiting family members, and add an increase in the allowable money transfers to Cuba. Many expect this promise to be honored in the first 30 days of the Obama Presidency. He is also expected to expand the people-to-people exchange policy initiated by the Clinton administration, and all but eliminated under the Bush administration. The number of academics, church groups, students and other groups without commercial purpose traveling to Cuba would increase dramatically.
The real question is whether Raul Castro will respond favorably to these changes in U.S. Policy and begin his own policy changes affording the Cuban populace more personal liberties. If that door opens would Obama and the U.S. Congress consider lifting the embargo and allowing unlimited commercial and personal travel? And what would that mean?
The U.S. traveler will win; Cuba’s economy will win, but I wonder what of the other countries of the Caribbean and their need for the tourist dollar? Is there enough to go around? While the residents of the Bahamas and the Caribbean countries overwhelmingly favored Obama for president, citing “change” as the critical factor, many experts are concerned harder times are coming for the tourism industry. These difficult times would only be exacerbated by an increase in Cuban tourism.
Furthermore, the government coffers of many Caribbean countries have grown fat with the influx of high end resort developments spending, and promises to spend, hundreds of millions of dollars to develop large tracts of land, often very remote, into high end developments featuring golf courses, casinos and marinas built for the largest luxury yacht. These vacation, investment or second homes often are priced well over a million dollars. A cornerstone of the Obama campaign was his promise to raise income taxes for anybody who could afford one of these properties. An entry from an expat blog, the Belize Gringo, “………the tax reforms that Obama plans to put in place would severely cut the disposable income that this income tax bracket previously spent on vacationing and investing in Belize” is representative of the concern.
For those Caribbean countries whose financial and banking sectors generate a significant source of national income, Obama policies may also have an impact. He is a staunch supporter of eliminating tax havens in the Caribbean, having proposed the “Stop Tax Haven Abuse Bill” while in the Senate. The French and Germans have suggested a primary blame for the world wide banking crisis is the existence of these tax havens and have discussed embargos to force change. It would be a strange world if at the end of the Obama presidency the trade and travel restrictions now imposed on Cuba have been moved to the Caymans and other “tax havens.”
The first ninety days of any presidency is often viewed as a measuring stick for the next four years. No group will be watching the Obama Presidency closer than the Caribbean community.
written by Roger Washburn