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EDITORIAL - Who's paying attention to Cuba?

Published:Monday | January 26, 2015 | 12:00 AM

It has been more than a month since Barack Obama announced his intention to normalise America's diplomatic relations and, where possible, use his executive authority to end the trade embargo on Havana.

Since then, the parties have been moving with speed to actualise the agreement. Last week, US and Cuban officials met in Havana for a round of negotiations on the reopening of embassies in each other's capital.

In Kingston, with leading figures having gone through their embrace of Mr Obama's move, we perceive among Jamaican officials a deep sense of certainty, in some cases fear even, of what the end of the embargo will mean for Jamaica and its partners in the Caribbean.

Among the more immediate concerns is that with an ease of travel restrictions for Americans, US tourists who now come to Caribbean destinations like Jamaica may now head to Cuba. People in the public and private sectors also fear that US capital may be siphoned from the English-speaking region to Cuba.

Of course, these are potentially real consequences of Mr Obama's decision. Our concern, though, is that they remain in the realm of gut feeling and anecdotal information, rather than being subjected to rigorous and expert policy analyses.

Government silent

Indeed, since Mr Obama's declaration, we have heard nothing from the Government, either through its foreign affairs and foreign trade, or industry and commerce or tourism ministries, or any of their agencies that these matters are being addressed. Neither have we heard of any such engagement by the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), nor any other private-sector group.

Beyond its domestic concerns, Jamaica has another reason, we feel, to be exercised by the Cuba-US development. As the Caribbean Community's (CARICOM) lead on international and third-party trade relations, we expect that Kingston would wish to be adequately prepared for discussion of the issues at next month's half-yearly summit of regional leaders.

Ministerial task force needed

Our message, therefore, is that the Simpson Miller administration, if it is not yet doing so on the quiet, should urgently organise an inter-ministerial task force, working with private-sector groups, such as the PSOJ, to determine the threats, but more importantly, identify exercisable opportunities that might flow from this US-Cuba rapprochement.

They should begin with an appreciation that Jamaica and its CARICOM partners, despite their weak economies, have something of an advantage with Cuba beyond a strong political relationship, based on principle. There is, too, as we have pointed out before, a little-used, decade-and-a-half old CARICOM-Cuba free trade agreement.

Most Jamaican products can enter the Cuban market free of duties, so long as they meet value-added requirement. We have not done particularly well on that score, though. Trade between the two countries in 2013, for instance, was a minuscule US$5.9 million, with Kingston's exports accounting for US$3.6 million or over 60 per cent. Jamaica should be attempting, where it can, to expand on that toe-hold.

But it is not on invisible trade in which Jamaican and CARICOM should seek opportunities in Cuba.

As we reminded previously, in the communiqué of a Cuban-CARICOM summit last month, ahead of Mr Obama's announcement, the Cubans drew attention to moves to liberalise their economy, including new investment laws, as well as the development of a special economic zone at Mariel port. Jamaica should take note.

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