THE BLOG
01/28/2015 03:43 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2015

Cuba's Potential as the Economic Growth Superstar

John Donovan

Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, I traveled across Cuba by car with Fidel Castro and my father, the late New York lawyer James B. Donovan, who was negotiating for prisoners. We came home with 35 of them. My father brought me, his 18-year-old son, along as a kind of peace hostage or gesture of confidence that he later said was the psychological key to the successful negotiation.

Along the way, Castro said something to the effect that he wanted Cuba to diversify into manufacturing. In other words, he didn't want his country to continue as a banana republic, so to speak, depending on the export of agricultural products and natural resources. But if you compare the Cuba of the early '60s to, say, South Korea, and then compare those two countries today, you see that Cuba is still back in that banana republic (or sugar republic) status while South Korea has shown an economic growth so astonishing that it even challenges the most advanced economies in the world in several product categories.

The reason for this as a general phenomenon was expressed well by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 2002: "The Achilles heel of socialism was its inability to link the socialist goal with the provision of incentives for efficient labor and the encouragement of initiative on the part of individuals."

Some Cuban exiles have expressed their opposition to the moves toward normalizing relations with Cuba, but it seems likely that they are the very group that may turn the new policy into a bonanza for the Cuban people. The exiles have been flourishing throughout the United States, most conspicuously in Miami. Indeed, there is abundant evidence that it has been largely the energetic Cuban presence that has taken that decaying city and transformed it into what is really the economic capital of Latin America.

The exiles were lucky at first to arrive there from Cuba with even the gold fillings in their teeth, and after that they encountered some of the prejudice that Latinos have always faced in this country, but their close family ties and entrepreneurial vigor have scored one breakthrough after another. As Clayton M. Christensen and other authorities on economic growth and innovation have asserted, real jobs and economic growth come from companies and their leaders, not from societies and their governments.

At the same time, it cannot be said for Cuba or any other ex-communist country that a mere return to pre-existing conditions will suffice. The challenge before Cuba is the same as the challenge before every country in the world, and that is to strive toward a society that combines the unleashing of individual potential with the family-like concern for one another's essential well-being. This combination, if it produces in Cuba a social order that is both dynamic and humane, might just become a model for the world, giving some purpose to the suffering of the past half-century.

In other words, the challenge ahead shouldn't be understood entirely as holding up the value of individuals as opposed to the authority of governments, such as the one that rules in Havana. The Cuban success will also have much to do with something in-between, which is the cohesive social network that prevails in the Cuban-exile community. In our era of widespread social isolation, it is immediately evident to a visitor among the Miami Cubans that these family ties and other social ties are a force to be reckoned with.

The anger many of them feel against the government in Havana is still evident, and that should be understandable -- even to those who don't have reason to feel it for personal reasons. In 1963, when I was an 18-year old and sitting next to Fidel Castro having a meal, I undiplomatically brought up the subject of the many executions committed by that government and I persisted until my father had to kick me under the table. It was the wrong thing to bring up on that occasion, but those executions were just one of the many outrageous injustices perpetrated by the Cuban government over the years. If they had involved anyone in my own family, I would have probably been looking for an opportunity to give Castro a kick under the table. We should just be patient. As Winston Churchill said, "Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers which they dare not dismount. And the tigers are getting hungry."

This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.

If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to impactblogs@huffingtonpost.com (subject line: "90 Miles").