Carnival Is A Cuba Cautionary Tale: It's Not About Business. It's About Politics

Apr 20, 2016

COMMENTARY

Does the Carnival Corporation know something the rest of us don’t?

Because if it doesn’t, its Fathom cruise ship may not be heading to Cuba for a long time.

American businessmen, lawyers and government officials – in their eagerness to make hay from the normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties – too often forget a paramount rule about striking deals with communist Cuba:

It’s not the economy, stupid. It’s politics, both there and here.

RELATED: Is Reasoning In Havana More Effective Than Railing From Miami? Sí

Last year, Miami-based Carnival arranged to have its Fathom brand run cruises from PortMiami to Cuban harbors at Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. It’s due to start them May 1, in less than two weeks.

But everyone seemed to downplay, forget or ignore an odd and obscure Cuban immigration policy that bars anyone born in Cuba from entering or leaving the island by ship.

As a Cuban Foreign Ministry official explained to me last month in Havana, the rule is meant to discourage Cubans from making potentially deadly raft odysseys to the U.S.

Yet it also applies to Cuban-born people now living in the U.S.

In their eagerness to make hay from the normalization of U.S.-Cuba ties, Americans too often forget a paramount rule about striking deals with Cuba: It's not the economy, stupid. It's politics, both there and here.

Could that be one of Havana’s little ways of poking Cuban exiles in the eye?

Gosh, why would anyone assume that? The revolution has only been calling exiles gusanos, or worms, for more than half a century. Welcome to Cuba, Carnival.

And was that poke bound to irk Cuban-Americans once they tried to book passage on the Fathom cruises and found out they were gusanos-non-grata?

Gosh, do you think? Exiles have only been cursing the revolution since 1959. Welcome to Miami, Carnival – oh, wait, you’ve been headquartered here since 1972.

After Cuban-Americans here loudly protested – and even got support from Secretary of State John Kerry – the cruise line announced this week it will delay Cuba voyages until Havana changes the policy. Carnival said it’s “optimistic Cuba will treat travelers with Fathom the same as air charters today.”

But if you think that’s going to happen any time soon, maybe you’ll also believe Cuban President Raúl Castro is retiring to a Collins Avenue condo when he leaves office in 2018.

For Cuba to nix the no-exiles-by-sea rule now would look like capitulation to Miami and U.S. capitalism. If the past is any guide, that’s an affront to revolutionary pride that Castro and comrades will never allow.

As I said, perhaps Carnival has been told a rule reversal is imminent. Perhaps Cuba has decided that all the hard cruise currency flowing from docking fees, supplies purchases and disembarking passengers trumps the thought of giving up political points to the worms.

Maybe it is about the economy after all. If so, I’ll be the first to call myself stupid.

PARTY TIME

But anyone who just watched the Cuban Communist Party Congress that ended yesterday would guess Havana is in no mood right now to yield to los yanquis. The party’s hardliners spent a lot of time grousing about President Obama’s historic visit there last month, when he publicly urged them to adopt more democratic and economic change.

In response, they appeared to rein in any reforms that might expand political rights or the private sector – despite Castro’s warning that Cuba’s moribund economy is stuck in an “obsolete mentality.”

Communist continuity became their mantra. They rolled in 89-year-old founding father Fidel Castro to declare that “the ideas of the Cuban communists will remain” even though “this might be one of the last times” he addresses them.

Cuban-Americans in Miami this month protest Carnival Cruises bowing to a Cuban rule that bars them from entering Cuba by ship.
Credit Carl Juste / Miami Herald

It was enough to make any Cuban communist shed a tear and think about victory at the Bay of Pigs instead of revenue at Havana Harbor.

Ergo the advisory that if you want to sign contracts in Cuba, you need more political savvy than business acumen. I can’t count the number of times in the past 16 months that U.S. execs have returned from Havana and given me sound bites like:

“It’s more useful there to know political science than computer science.”

“Offering a better deal than your competitor is not their major motivation.”

“I recommend you be a diplomat more than a dealmaker.”

Had Carnival, the Obama Administration and the Castro government done some patient negotiating last year – the kind that yielded normalization in the first place – Cuba might have dropped the maritime rule, quietly, with no one even knowing.

But now? I hope Carnival’s bet is right. I’m expecting it’s wrong.