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.

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  1. To reflect on “Cuba in Cayman’s Backyard” I would venture to say the thawing of Cuba will only effect Cayman by the adventurous looking for an adventure.
    Cayman Islands, I must agree, has been stuck with the short end of the balance in regards to the detention and repatriation of Cuban Migrants; and what ever ridiculous cost that has been incurred is our fault, and some also to our advantage,.
    Cuba’s population is about twelve million people, it is the largest in the western Caribbean. It is a BIG PLACE and can be compared with Washington or London in that regards.
    The world always thought that USA held an embargo on Cuba, however for one who have lived there, I did not see it that way. I saw it as the other way round, Cuba had an embargo on the USA. People do not fool yourselves and think that the Cuban Government is hurting or Poor, they are not, and although Communist, its a Government I respect to the fullest. What ever we may have heard or read about them they have principle and stick by their rules, and most of all love their people.
    Of course there will always be those who sit and watch things happen, those who do not care what happen, and those who make things happen.
    If someone did not take the bold step of trying to walk on the moon, we would never have know that it could have been done. The Moon walk is over and we still fancy our tiny earth as a safer place.
    My encouragement is that anyone who can afford it, to take the adventure, and inhale the beauty of “Cuba in Cayman Back yard.” but not for one moment should anyone think, or try to surmise they will change the knowledge of fifty five years Communist Rule; or the Moon Walk will end very quickly and you will be right back in Cayman Backyard.

  2. We went to Havana for a few days last November.
    Lot of fun except no one had warned us they don’t accept USA credit cards.

    To us it was a prime example of the effect of 50+ years of communism.
    Cars held together with rubber bands, charming restaurants with very ordinary cuisine and everywhere looked like it needed a coat of paint.
    Followed round a museum by a guard who had offered to take our photo and now demanded a $5 tip.

    A Cuban taxi driver put it best. “Our government may be communist but the people are capitalist.”

    Make no mistake, Americans will go there, and so will their cruise ships. With or without a cruise port here.

    And of course they will fly direct when they can.

  3. Twyla, I hate to disillusion you but I was based in Eastern Europe during collapse of communism and the people there discarded the old state system like a pair of old, smelly, worn out shoes. I’m not saying it was a comfortable transition by any means but I went back to Leipzig in 2015 for the first time since German re-unification 25 years ago and the transformation was staggering.
    Even now in Cuba you can see the gradual moves towards a free-market economy but you can also, if you look for it, see a lot of poverty. One of the problems Cuba had over the years is that it was forced to rely on deals with countries like the Soviet Union and China, which inevitably only benefitted the larger partner. I have no idea how bad this got but when I was last in Cuba the big talking point was how badly the Chinese were treating them on trade deals. The aftermath of the death of Hugo Chavez has also hit Cuba pretty hard financially.
    However, in recent years Cuba’s horizons have expanded significantly. The huge container port at Mariel is a good example of a Cuban joint-venture as are many of the hotels and resorts catering for visitors from Europe. You can’t turn the clock back now and when US funding starts to become available things definitely will change very rapidly. A few years ago the most sought-after things in Cuba were basics like pens and note-pads, now people want to buy your laptop and they have dollars or euros to offer for it.
    When I go back to places in Eastern Europe I visited 25 years ago about the only legacy there seems to be of the communist system is deeply ingrained atheism – all the statues and monuments are gone, the museums are closed, even the street names have been stripped of any links to the past. Trust me in a few years Cuba will go the same way.