A very young Cuban artist approached me recently to say hi, and he used the opportunity to make a comment that surprised and pleased me. Not all young people have succumbed to being seduced by the “privileges” of capitalism; most of them want something different from what exists, either here or there. “I’m very optimistic about everything that’s happening between Cuba and the United States. I travel a lot to Miami and New York, and we do need a store like Walmart or something like that, but not the crazy capitalism that exists there. I’m afraid that Cubans will lose their innocence in that sense, and all of the services for the population, and the social values that we have, especially in education, health and culture,” he told me.
Last December, a few hours after President Obama’s speech, top executives of U.S. corporations, investment funds, and law firms began setting into motion
something that had been stewing for some time: their Cuba Plan.
In a recently-published article, Princeton professor and former secretary of labor Robert Reich said that most U.S. companies do not feel any kind of alliance or commitment to their country or to raising wages for their workforce, and that their only commitment is to their stockholders and to maximizing profits.
I also would like to see a Walmart store in Cuba—several of them, why not. Stores like Apple and Home Depot, and even though I prefer Cuban coffee to Starbucks expresso, I would like to see a few of those scattered around Havana, too. I don’t have anything against the way those businesses are run; despite what Prof. Reich says, I think it’s right for them to defend their interests. However, if they were to have access to the Cuban market someday, I would like for them to think not only about their earnings, but also about how to give back and invest part of that wealth in society. My criteria is that whatever inspires and promotes the nation and people’s prosperity and well-being, including the participation of U.S. companies, should be welcomed, but with moderation and caution.
Investment is needed; Cuba needs to get back on its feet, evolve…. I think a lot of things need to be resolved, and a lot of things need to be taken care of, protected, and defended, especially everything that represents and is, in essence, the soul of the nation.
Investment is sure to come, but market power is something that should be closely monitored, particularly by a small island nation like Cuba. Big stores full of cheap imported Chinese goods often come at a high price which takes years to realize- and then it’s too late; they become entrenched and too powerful to control. There is a reason why New York City residents have resisted attempts by Walmart to open a store in their city – and it goes well beyond the feisty attitude that has historically characterized its residents. I believe when these stores show up, they are initially a force of good, at least for consumers. However, in the long-run, something is lost. The entrepreneurial spirit of a people is quashed. The work of the shopkeeper who manages his/her inventory and acquires the skills needed to run an entire business, sometimes over generations, dies. Reich is correct to point out that something more than profit should be delivered, but if operations even in American towns/cities are any indication – left unchecked, we would deliver an American nightmare to the talent, resourcefulness, and spirit of a people who deserve a chance to run their own businesses, rather than be turned into disposable cogs in a foreign corporation’s machinery.
Robert Reich is correct: enterprises basically will focus on maximizing their profits, not about how to ‘give back’. This is not due to any personal failing on the part of their owners or operators, it’s just the automatic working of economic processes. Of course, big multi-national corporations can be pressured by public protests (on the part of their potential customers) to some extent to avoid the most egregious examples of bad behavior, but the ‘give back’ part has to be ‘take back’, done by the state — enforcing decent working conditions — and trade unions, and campaigning groups.
But … why assume that big stores which import from China, or decent coffee shops, or any other business, has to be done by foreigners? Why can’t Cubans open such enterprises, perhaps as co-operatives like Mondragon, or profit-sharing enterprises like the very successful John Lewis’ of London? (The Chinese have been pretty successful at beating the American and European capitalists at their own game. Why not Cubans?)