Though many among us like to boast that the Cayman Islands is the world’s fifth-largest international financial center and therefore occupies an outsize role in international affairs, it is important that we not confuse our reputation with reality.
As an apt reminder of our territory’s relative impotence to determine even our own destiny, look no further than our nearest neighbor to the north: Cuba.
You needn’t procure a pair of binoculars to peer across the 100 miles of sea separating Cayman Brac from Cuba’s southern islets, or board a Cayman Airways jet to travel the 275 miles from George Town to Havana. Rather, be aware of the 135 Cuban migrants who remain in custody at Cayman immigration detention facilities, or the recently signed agreement allowing for 110 commercial flights per day from U.S. cities to 10 Cuban destinations.
While we subscribe to the basic economic principle that a rising tide lifts all boats — and generally, remain optimistic that a thriving Cuba will strengthen the Caribbean region as a whole — we find it difficult to shake concerns about the possibility of Cayman getting soaked.
Certainly, our country is getting stuck with the short end of the balance sheet in regard to the detention and repatriation of Cuban migrants whose vessels founder in Cayman’s waters or run aground on Cayman’s shores.
Possibly because of anxieties over potential changes to the U.S. “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy on Cuban migrants, the number of Cubans getting stymied in Cayman during their long journey to America has skyrocketed in the past several years — and so have our territory’s associated costs.
In the 2011 calendar year, our government spent just $26,000 on migrants. In 2014, that figure was $1.6 million. Since the current fiscal year budget began in July 2015, the government has already spent nearly $1 million. And the Cubans keep coming in, lately faster than we can send them back. In the six weeks of this still-new year 2016, more than 120 migrants have landed in Cayman, and we have been able to return about 50.
If the problem with getting migrants from Cayman back home is a matter of a lack of available airlift, the Cayman Airways–operated routes from here to Cuba may soon have a lot more empty seats.
Jesting aside, we don’t know yet how much of an impact the establishing of regular commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba will have on Cayman Airways’ service. We can guess that the loss of those routes could deal a major financial blow to our national airline. What we do know is that, given the choice between a direct flight from Miami to Havana (or vice versa), or the “scenic” route with a stopover in Grand Cayman’s overcrowded (and under-jetwayed) airport … or even Cayman Brac’s new facility … we’d put our money on the option that is shorter, quicker and cheaper.
For the past 55 years, since the U.S. first imposed an embargo against Cuba, Cayman has been a beneficiary of the frozen relationship between the two nations, maintaining close ties to both, acting as an intermediary for people and goods skirting around the blockade, and generally enriching ourselves with visitors who — if not for American prohibitions against Cuban travel — may never have thought to come here in the first place.
In brief, Cayman’s economy, founded on financial services and tourism, has flourished over the past half-century while Cuba’s has been on ice.
And now … the thaw.