Let's get really subversive and convert Guantanamo Bay into a free-trade port

Article by John Blundell in The Scotsman

FIDEL Castro's ill health makes Cuba's future topical again. The one option that seems impossible is the preservation of autocratic communism. Socialism is an idea that has failed.

Havana is beautiful for tourists but wretched for its residents. Soon there will only be the museum exhibit of North Korea, comical for us to observe but cruel for its citizens.

We should not forget there is another corner of Cuba that is highly topical, too - Guantanamo Bay, the American base. As a military prison it is harvesting entirely miserable publicity for the USA. Let us make it a territory of free trade rather than grim detention. Let it perform the task West Berlin did to East Germany - it provoked reform. It held up a mirror of capitalist vitality against socialist inertia.

There is a Scottish footnote to Guantanamo Bay. Colonised by the Crown in the 18th century, it was termed Cumberland Bay after the duke, remembered for the blood at Culloden. Typhoid ruined the British experiment. We yielded it to the Spanish.

The Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation's experiment in computing where people are most free rates Hong Kong and Singapore as top of the liberty league. Both are anomalies.

Singapore was founded by the British in 1819 and Hong Kong in 1841. Although the sweat and dexterity that made these two city states flourish was mostly Chinese, the Brits added two magic ingredients - the rule of law and free trade.

In both cases, the men who selected the sites were regarded as wildly misguided and their projects utterly futile. Singapore was an unhealthy mangrove swamp that not even the locals fancied. Hong Kong was no more than a fishing village. Both had superb anchorages - just like Guantanamo.

Now make a leap of imagination. The 71 square miles of the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay on Cuba could have a far happier and prosperous future if it raised its horizons from the merely military to becoming an entrepôt centre for the entire Caribbean.

Hong Kong's dynamism served to convert China to capitalism. A Guantanamo opened up as a freeport would subvert Castro's ugly regime.

The enclave is not tiny. It is bigger than Edinburgh. This, the oldest American base on foreign soil is a legal curiosity. It was stolen from Cuba in 1898, then given a fig leaf of respectability in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt and then a further one by FDR in 1939. Some argue this "lease" expires in 2032. So, in 26 years' time in will revert to Havana's control.

Guantanamo Bay was not chosen at random. It is one of the world's great harbours and anchorages. It is far better used as a bustling freeport than a gun emplacement.

Today it is a very curious piece of South Florida suburbia attached to a moribund socialist economy. The only commerce permitted at Guantanamo is in the commissary store with a MacDonald's, a bowling alley and a cinema. Alleged terrorist internees are its only growth industry.

Just as West Berlin was a piece of capitalist grit in the oyster of East German socialism, so Guantanamo Bay could be a beacon of the most subversive force in the world - free trade.

In the beginning the authorities in Havana will be hostile and permit no intercourse with the enclave, but a tariff-free port will become a magnet for commerce across Central America and the Caribbean.

Technically China took over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom but the reality was more that the kaleidoscope of wealth of the colony dazzled the Beijing communists into converts for open markets. China has awoken to shock us all - not with its arsenal, but its tide of exports.

Is this a neat idea but utterly impractical? Guantanamo is bigger than the original Venice and larger than the nucleus of what became Amsterdam - both bits or territory the local princes thought unworthy of their interest. Hong Kong island is smaller than the US navy base on Cuba.

Until Fidel Castro expires, it seems to be US policy that nothing can be done to liberate Cuba. They should try trade. A tide of tourists and entrepreneurs could engulf and explode the communist inertia. It would not just be dollars but joy and laughter.

Exactly like Singapore and Hong Kong, Guantanamo Bay has no natural resources. It even has to desalinate its own seawater. Yet the music that harmonises economic life is the mystery termed "comparative advantage".

Let the American authorities declare the Bay open for trade and with no tariff impediments. It will boom.

The world needs more islands of economic freedom. Africa could be transformed if, say, Zanzibar and Liberia were to abandon their mercantilism and lawlessness.

A liberalised Guantanamo Bay need not abandon its military role, but once trade is flourishing the perceived threats may evaporate. Hong Kong retained a garrison until the very end. My hunch is this notion would appeal mightily to Teddy Roosevelt's ghost.

Guantanamo Bay's only outlets to the world are the regular flights from Jacksonville and a few US navy supply ships. No other commercial traffic is permitted.

The airport should be linked to hundreds of destinations, not just one. Guantanamo Bay is a piece of debris left over from the long-forgotten Spanish-American War.

Now it is a piece of debris of the Cold War. Capitalism won. It is time this territorial anomaly tore down all the razor wire and opened up for commerce. It should no longer be a prison but adapted to freedom and its corollary - free trade.


John Blundell is director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs

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