By Garry Pierre-Pierre
HAVANA, Cuba – In the early 1990s Cuba faced a double whammy: First it lost its economic patron, the Soviet Union and then the United States doubled down and clamped the vise grip on an already punishing embargo.
So what’s a hardline communist to do? Well, open your country to tourism, which is what Fidel Castro did. I’m sure there were tensions and fierce debate within the political elite in Cuba, some of whom uneasy that opening the country to tourists can bring back the old bad days that led to the overthrow of Fulgenio Batista by these same communists.
But the policy, as designed, was cleverer than merely attracting tourists. The ostensible goal was to attract hard currency that the government needed badly. By having people travel to the island, the country can circumvent some of the thorniest economic restrictions imposed under the U.S. led embargo.
Cuba was able to move the needle economically and slowly become a destination of choice in the Caribbean for millions of mostly Canadians, Europeans and few other nations. Their price is ultra competitive and all-inclusive and the reception from the people is as warm as the Caribbean sea.
I have no doubt that Haiti’s President Michel Martelly channeled Cuba when he made tourism the cornerstone of economic development in Haiti. The reasoning is that if Cuba can do it, why can’t Haiti.
I’m sure at some point, Haiti can become a hot destination for tourism as well. It has the sun, warm beaches and the rum that some tourists seek so much, particularly during the long dreary winters in North America and far-flung places in Europe.
But it’s not ready and those of you who read me regularly know where I stand on this issue so I will spare you a repeat of those arguments. This is not the salient point of this column.
I think Haiti can emulate another Cuban development policy of providing compulsory education to the population. Cuba has one of the highest rates of literacy and exports doctors like Haiti sends refugees to the Dominican Republic and the U.S.
The Martelly administration imposed a $1.50 tax on money transfers to Haiti and in-coming calls to Haiti to provide free education to the millions of school age citizens. The action, despite its good intentions, remains illegal because only Parliament can levy taxes. Political gridlock, notwithstanding, the bill was never presented to Parliament. Martelly has been governing by decree after legislators’ terms ran out and no elections were held on time. As of this writing another electoral impasse is gripping the country and the fate of the next president remains unknown as candidates are protesting the results of elections that are widely accepted as fraudulent.
So a country that is seemingly locked in political chaos cannot seriously think of itself as an attractive destination for tourists. Haiti can and should consider investing heavily in lower and higher education like Cuba did.
To be sure, education is big business. Let’s take New York State for instance. New York was able to provide economic boost to scores of struggling towns upstate by opening campuses in Fredonia, New Paltz and Platsburg, to name a few. A campus creates hundreds of construction jobs. Once in operation, thousands of more people are needed to fill the ranks of professional and menial jobs necessary to meet the needs of the students and the professors at the university. It also stems brain drain to an area and attracts investment with companies seeking to tap into the educated workforce.
This sounds similar to Haiti as far as am concerned.
Haitians know of all this, and the average Haitian – no matter how poor – treasures education and will make any sacrifice to ensure that their children can receive an education. The government should tap into this yearning and solve many problems at once.
An educated populace affords you boundless opportunities. No matter which economic development strategy a president wants to showcase, he or she needs to have the manpower capable of executing the plan. Agriculture, tourism or manufacturing requires an educated workforce.
In Haiti, opening satellite campuses of the State University of Haiti in each of the 11 provinces would decentralize Port-au-Prince and make a significant dent in reducing the more than 2 million people that call the capital region home. Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital was designed for 200,000 people.
The next president’s trip to Havana should be a long one because the Cubans have lots to teach their Haitian allies. That is if the Haitians want to learn.