Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Cuba is not Vietnam is not China

She said when her boat arrived in Cuba from Massachusetts, the boat owner asked her to pull out a bar of soap. She had been instructed to bring as many cheap bars of soap as she could. The owner of the boat shaved a sliver of soap from the bar and gave it to a woman who returned with a week’s worth of produce, fresh fruits and vegetables.

Some friends recently described their experiences traveling in Cuba. They both were appalled by the poverty in which Cubans live. They seemed to feel great sympathy and pity for what they describe as the abject poverty Cubans live in.

And I said, if everyone is so poor, why wouldn’t you just give all the soap away to everyone.

Certainly I understand the idea that you might need to protect yourself as a tourist, that it’s not always a good idea to draw attention to yourself, to flaunt your wealth. It makes sense to remain inconspicuous when traveling in any country. But if the people of Cuba are living in the crippling poverty as described to me that night, how could one not want to give up something as simple as soap if one finds him or herself in that position?

Last week I listened to a series of stories about Cuba on NPR. One woman described the residents in Mariel longing for the end of the U.S. embargo, believing that with its end will come a period of opening and great prosperity in Cuba. I agree. I think the embargo is antiquated and it is time to normalize relations with the country. I, too, believe that lifting the embargo could do a lot for the Cuban economy, but I cannot believe that the situation in Cuba will change drastically just because the U.S. will open itself up to trade with the nation.

One of my friends that night said that once the embargo stops he sees factories opening in Cuba and extolled what benefits that could bring the economy. “I mean can you even imagine what a Nike factory opening in Cuba could mean for these people that only make twenty dollars a month?” He pointed out the economic lift that had occurred in China and Vietnam because of the U.S. factories that had opened in those countries.

China is not Vietnam. While the U.S. and China have very large populations and the largest economies in the world. In terms of GDP, Vietnam ranks only as the 55th largest economy in the world according to the U.N., directly under Ukraine, New Zealand, and Romania. Cuba, with its economy “on the brink of collapse” according to my friends, ranks only a little below this as the 65th largest economy. And let’s point out one very telling fact: Vietnam has a population close to 90 million people whereas Cuba only has a population just over 11 million.

With a population including over 1.3 billion people, China has an extremely large workforce and domestic market. But it is obviously not just population and the factory work sent from the U.S. to China that has buoyed the Chinese economy. Let’s remember that Japan held the title of second largest economy for decades. Japan’s current population is 126 million, much less than half that of China’s, and relatively only a little larger than that of Vietnam. (And to put it in perspective, let me also mention that the U. S. population is currently coming in around 318 million.

So what then makes a successful economy, like those of China, Japan, the U.S. and Europe? Innovation. We understand it when we think about the U.S. and Europe and Japan, but it is time we understand that the Chinese economy is not just propped up on manufacturing.

I’ve heard it before: China has dozens of large metropolises you have never heard of. Americans know Beijing and Shanghai and Hong Kong, but what about Guangzhou and Nanjing and Shenzhen and Chongqing. My boyfriend lived two years in Kunming, a city in Yunnan province I had never heard of, with a metropolitan population quite a bit larger than that of Portland’s. The real estate market is huge in China and people are making money.

I like to say China has dozens of huge companies you have never heard of. Xiaomi, Tencent, Weibo, Feiyue: these are only a few of the companies that America has even the faintest inkling of but are huge in China. Sure, Nike sells shoes in China, but China has Feiyue, which now hipsters in Brooklyn buy for six times the price they would pay in Shanghai. Apple has a relatively small presence in the Chinese smartphone market, and this fall, Xiaomi, one of the other major players there, hopes to offer a phone to the American market.

A Nike factory in Cuba isn’t going to change the Cuban economy. With manufacturing wages may be lifted, people in general may come to have more disposable income or more stable jobs, but it will not automatically produce the prosperity we experience in America or China or Europe or Canada. Sure, the embargo must be lifted, but the Cuban government and the Cuban people must also search for a way to push internal economic security, to push for and encourage local innovation and entrepreneurship. Imported jobs manufacturing foreign developed commodities will not grow an economy.

It may be idealistic to say the Cuban people should hope for something more than just to see the end of the embargo because I don’t have a solution. If we are truly concerned about the conditions in any country, we must definitely see that American manufacturing cannot import prosperity. The Cuban government and people must find a way to nurture innovation and put in place an economy that invests and develops internally.

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