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Jamaica's head-start on Cuba

Published:Sunday | December 21, 2014 | 12:01 AM

Barack Obama's announcement of his decision to thaw and normalise America's frigid relations has inevitably triggered a flurry of discussion, including in official circles, on the impact this policy shift may have on Jamaica and its partners in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

Unfortunately, the public discourse has not, so far, been particularly helpful. It has been too short on facts and deep analysis. This reflects, in this newspaper's view, an absence of serious strategic attention being paid by the Government and the private sector to Jamaica's closest neighbour, despite their sporadic declarations, over the decades, of the need to prepare for this eventuality.

It is, nonetheless, not too late for Jamaica and CARICOM to begin to get their act together to be in a position, with Cuba, to reap some of the benefits that could potentially flow from Mr Obama's actions. Indeed, the CARICOM states are in a better position than most, given the partial scope of the trade and economic cooperation agreement that has existed between the Community and Cuba for nearly a decade and a half.

Under this agreement, CARICOM can export a wide range of manufactures and other products to Cuba duty-free, once they comply with the domestic value-added regime. Cuba has reciprocity for a swathe of its products to the markets of CARICOM's more developed members - Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana and Suriname. The agreement also perceives arrangements for trade financing and investment protection and its eventual expansion to trade in services, including government procurement.

Yet, in its 14 years of existence, CARICOM-Cuba trade has remained largely negligible. In Jamaica's case, for instance, in 2012, it exported US$6.6 million in goods to Cuba and imported US$1.4 million. These numbers have had no dramatic change.

Economic distress

Part of the reason for this is the economic distress of Cuba and several CARICOM economies, exacerbated, in Jamaica's case, by the uncompetitiveness of many of its industries. Additionally, America's trade embargo on Cuba, including the threat of the extraterritorial application of US laws, such as Helms-Burton, was also something of psychological menace against a deeper, economically practical engagement of Cuba.

This, however, is not a sufficient explanation of CARICOM's failure to exploit this special relationship with Cuba. Jamaica has not been sufficiently robust in searching for opportunities in Cuba, especially in the context of its evolving domestic market dynamic that has seen the growth of private businesses.

Even before Mr Obama's announcement last week, however, an attentive Jamaica and CARICOM, coaxed by the Cubans, should have begun to pay attention. Indeed, the communique from the December 8 CARICOM-Cuba summit in Havana invited the Community to note the "updating of Cuba's economic model, its foreign investment law", the special development zone at Mariel, and the opportunities these provide "on a much broader scale to accelerate and strengthen CARICOM-Cuba economic ties".

As the country with responsibility in CARICOM for the Community's external relations, Jamaica will be expected to lead any regionwide movement to act on Havana's invitation. But the CARICOM-Cuba agreement is not premised on supranational activity. Individual states act on their own. Official Jamaica and the island's private sector should urgently begin this engagement.