WLRN Correspondent Eats Carnival Cuba Crow – But It Doesn't Taste All That Bad

Apr 22, 2016

COMMENTARY

I’m eating crow on both sides of the Florida Straits today.

I owe an apology on this side to the Carnival Corporation. And one al otro lado to the Cuban government.

I wrote a column this week predicting it would snow in Havana before Cuba changed a rule that barred anyone born in Cuba, including those living in the U.S., from entering or leaving the island by ship.

I based that forecast on the fact that Cuban exiles were loudly protesting the policy, which kept them from booking passage on the cruises to Cuba that Carnival’s Fathom brand was scheduled to start May 1. They even filed a class-action lawsuit against Miami-based Carnival for bowing to what they called discrimination. No less than Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to back them up.

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

So on Monday, Carnival threatened to delay the Cuba cruises “pending a change in Cuban policy.”

But no way, I feared, would Cuba’s communist leadership ever allow itself to look as if it were capitulating to its nemesis, the Cuban exiles in Miami. And I took Carnival to task for betting it would.

If Cuba did reverse the rule – if it did put its severely cash-strapped economy before its politics in this case – I promised I would be the first to call myself stupid.

Well, damas y caballeros, I was stupid.

Carnival snatched a big p.r. victory from the jaws of defeat - not just because it will cruise into Cuba on May 1, but because it may have helped Obama's Cuba engagement policy get its mojo back.

This morning, in a move that seemed to take everyone but Carnival by surprise, the official Cuban newspaper Granma said that starting next Tuesday, anyone born in Cuba will be allowed to arrive there by cruise ship.

“We are part of making history again today,” Carnival CEO Arnold Donald said in a statement, since the company will be the first to run U.S.-based cruises to Cuba in more than half a century.

And yet, although I was wrong – and God knows it’s hardly the first time – this is one of those times when I’m quite happy to be wrong.

By relenting a little, by admirably swallowing a bit of pride and showing a willingness to compromise, Cuba suddenly made the process of normalizing U.S.-Cuba ties look alive again.

For months now, U.S. critics have groused that normalization was too much a one-way street. They argued Washington was giving and giving – removing Cuba from our list of state sponsors of terrorism, for example – while all Havana did was keep tossing dissidents in the pokey.

This morning, Cuban President Raúl Castro signaled some welcome flexibility. In the process, he vindicated President Obama’s decision to visit Cuba last month and publicly challenge the country's old guard to embrace more democratic and free-market reform.

CRUISE CASH

The Cuban leadership’s irked response to Obama’s call was one more reason for guessing that Cuba wouldn’t change the cruise-ship policy. At the Cuban Communist Party Congress in Havana this week, hardliners made it clear they were in no mood to yield anything to los yanquis.

But they did just that today.

In the end, the prospect of losing so many millions of dollars from Carnival docking fees, supplies purchases and disembarking passengers trumped the risk of appearing to let the exiles score a goal. Castro’s warning to the congress that Cuba’s economy is stuck in an “obsolete mentality” won out.

And that flies in the face of claims that normalization is a bust for the U.S. Now, as the Granma article concluded, it seems time for Washington to at least end the ban on U.S. tourist travel to Cuba.

Carnival CEO Arnold Donald Friday morning at the corporation's Doral headquarters.
Credit David Santiago

Carnival, meanwhile, has snatched a big p.r. victory from the jaws of defeat – not just because Fathom will cruise into Cuba on May 1, but because it may have helped Obama’s Cuba engagement policy get its mojo back.

Still, even after chewing all that black bird, I stick to my earlier column’s assertion that Carnival is a normalization cautionary tale. The company fell into a Miami maelstrom this month because, when it started the Cuba cruise negotiations last year, it naively thought it could avoid the political radar.

You can’t fly under that radar when you’re doing business with Cuba – and Cuban exiles. As Carnival found out, you can’t cruise under it, either.