Cuba through a Jamaican lens

In this guest post, Dr Hume Johnson reflects on Brand Cuba from the perspective of its closest neighbour, Jamaica, and discusses what may be next for the small island nation in the wake of its revitalised relations with the United States.

Dr Johnson is Assistant Professor of public relations at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island, founder of the Re-Imagine Jamaica Project, and a scholar of country branding and public diplomacy.

What does Brand Cuba consist of?

Cuba is a giant in the world. Despite decades of international isolation and sanctions designed to cripple this already poor nation, Cuba has managed to build a powerful and enviable international nation brand image anchored on successes in healthcare, sports, education, exports and for better or worse, revolutionary socialist ideas which became a model for much of Latin America.

Cuba’s medical brand is the key to its strong global image. The island boasts one of the best medical services in the world, as well as medical expertise, technology, superior facilities and standards of care which are models for other countries to follow. Cuba is also busy sharing this medical expertise on the international stage and is celebrated even by Western media for this. For example, Cuban doctors were at the forefront of the battle against the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, sending the largest contingent of foreign medical professionals to combat the disease.

The strength of Brand Cuba also lies in the fact that despite being a poor Third World society, crippled by international sanctions, it has nevertheless made significant developmental strides. Cuba ranks very highly on the Human Development Index in education and literacy – having the 4th highest literacy rate in Latin America, and in terms of life expectancy, and infant mortality and so on.

Cuba’s sports brand is also well- known, fielding strong players in baseball and boxing at the Olympics and World levels. In terms of export products, Cuba’s brand of tobacco has elevated Cuban cigars to become the most sought after in the world.

What do Jamaicans think of Cuba?

Jamaicans are not easily propagandised and have generally not bought into historically misleading and biased notions about Cuba and Fidel Castro purported by the West.

Jamaica has had a longstanding and positive diplomatic relationship with Cuba since the 1970s under the leadership of former Jamaican Prime Minister, Michael Manley. Jamaica’s position has always been one of respect for Cuba’s sovereign right to its own ideological and political policy positions.

In Jamaican society, where inequality is a major concern and the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is so vast, Cuba was a model for radical change and for policies that favour equal access to social goods, and rights for the poor.

Jamaicans have also largely celebrated Cuba for its contributions to education, sports and healthcare in Jamaica. Secondary schools such as Jose Marti High and GC Foster College – which train many of Jamaica’s outstanding athletes and coaches – are gifts from Cuba to Jamaica. Many of our young doctors are trained in Cuba, and the country benefits from Cuba’s medical expertise, so Jamaicans have and will remain unwavering in our support for Cuba.

What does the future hold for Brand Cuba?

After Obama’s historic decision to normalise relations with Cuba, people’s perception of Cuba will change. Mind you, there has always been a mystique and magnetism about Cuba, based on its history, culture and the appeal of its natural environment. Yet, after five decades of communist rule over this small Caribbean society with ancient infrastructure, outdated modes of transportation, electricity and communication, the curiosity and wonderment about Cuba will be heightened.

Cuba also has the chance to open up to the world, and truly enter the global market and compete for tourists, investment, students and capital. Its prime location in the Caribbean Basin, its proximity to Panama Canal and large markets such as the United States, as well as its skilled and educated workforce make it a magnet for foreign direct investment.

A new dawn for Cuba has arrived, and, as one Jamaican commentator remarked, a sleeping giant has been awakened.

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