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As Cuba-U.S. relations thaw, Vietnam may offer lessons

Motorbikes in Hanoi, Vietnam, 2008
Motorbikes in Hanoi, Vietnam, 2008 MCT

Americans often cite the importance of Florida politics to explain why relations between the United States and Cuba have been frozen for more than a half century.

But nearly 20 years after the U.S and Vietnam buried a bloody hatchet, an American venture capitalist based in Hanoi has an another theory about the length of time it took for the Western Hemisphere enemies to begin normalizing relations.

“I’m wondering if it took so long because there was never a war,” said Phuc Tran, who was born in Vietnam, left as a young refugee in 1975 and returned in 2000 as a representative for Intel.

The American War, as it’s known here, left a great wound that demanded healing, Tran said, while the U.S. and Cuba nurtured enmity for political reasons. “For guys like John McCain and John Kerry, Vietnam was personal. With Cuba, you don’t have a McCain and Kerry to drive change.” The Republican U.S. senator from Arizona and the secretary of state served in the military during the Vietnam War, and McCain was held prisoner and tortured by the North Vietnamese.

Whatever the reasons, Tran and other observers say the normalization of U.S.-Vietnam relations since 1995 should encourage Cubans and Americans to follow through on President Barack Obama’s bid for a new relationship.

Better ties, they say, figure to have palpable economic and social benefits for Cubans and Americans. Commerce with the United States has helped millions of Vietnamese enjoy a higher standard of living, and travel between the countries has soared.

But the Vietnam experience also shows that improved relations with the U.S. may have less of an impact on the ruling regime’s authoritarian ways.

In a recent report for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research center in Washington, senior fellow Murray Hiebert and his co-authors noted that despite 17 bilateral discussions on human rights over the years, the State Department estimated that there were about 120 political detainees in Vietnam at the end of 2013.

Even so, Vietnam’s engagements with the U.S. and other democratic countries “have had a significant impact on improving the human rights situation in Vietnam, including getting more space for journalists, bloggers and the religious community,” Hiebert wrote. “There are still problems, but the human rights situation in Vietnam is much better today than it was in 1995.”

Vietnam’s reconciliation with the U.S. is regarded as a turning point that complemented market-oriented reforms tailored to global trade, paving the way for a series of trade and investment agreements and the nation’s 2006 admission into the World Trade Organization.

Trade keeps growing at a rapid clip. During the first 10 months this year, this nation of 90 million people exported $25.1 billion in goods to the U.S.

That surpassed the $24.6 billion total for all of 2013 and is up from $20.7 billion in 2012 – all roughly five times the value of imports, according to data supplied by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. Trade is expected to grow more between the two nations, along with eight others that are deep into negotiations for a new pact called the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The vitality of U.S.-Vietnam relations is reflected in the remarkable influx of young Vietnamese as students at American colleges and secondary schools, a number that’s approaching 17,000, according to the U.S. Embassy office here. “Education has emerged as a crucial link between the two peoples,” Hiebert and co-authors observed.

Vietnam’s history is reflected in its emphasis on bilingualism. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the emphasis shifted to English from Russian, which had supplanted French. The owner of the Bookworm, a popular English-language bookstore in Hanoi, keeps paperback copies of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in stock because of demand from students eager to study abroad.

It bears little resemblance to the dark time after the fall of Saigon and the unification of the nation in 1975. While thousands of southern loyalists were placed in re-education camps and thousands more risked their lives as refugees in crowded boats, the Vietnamese military went to war against its communist brethren in Cambodia and later against a Chinese border incursion. Dysfunctional Soviet-style central planning added to the misery: This nation of rice paddies was once so hungry it had to import rice to feed its people. So-called “doi moi” reforms were announced in 1986 but not implemented until after the demise of Vietnam’s Soviet patrons.

Vietnam has since reversed course, becoming among the world’s leading exporters of rice, coffee and fish products. In addition to garments, textiles and footwear, its workers make electronics for Intel, Samsung and Nokia. With an economy growing nearly as fast as China’s – and spawning its own form of crony capitalism –Vietnam managed in early 2011 to edge into lower “middle income” status among nations, as measured by the World Bank.

Today, the growing middle class of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City shops at new malls that were built by the nation’s first billionaire. Wealthy Vietnamese are moving into new gated communities and buying Bentleys, Mercedes-Benzes and the occasional Rolls-Royce. Not far from the historic Metropole Hotel, the hammer-and-sickle incongruously flies outside posh Trang Tien Plaza, which showcases designer labels such as Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Burberry. Elsewhere, iconic global brands entice curious consumers. McDonald’s and Starbucks are recent arrivals in Vietnam, but Baskin-Robbins, Pizza Hut and KFC have been here for years.

Tran, who’s based in Ho Chi Minh City and now scouts tech opportunities for the Silicon Valley venture firm DFJ, suggested that Cuba’s proximity to the United States might make for a swifter economic impact, especially in tourism. The Cubans and foreign investors, he suggested, should carefully plan the anticipated hotels, resorts and transportation infrastructure in order not to spoil Cuba’s environment.

Nearly 40 years after the fall of Saigon, after all, Vietnam is seeking more help from the U.S. to address the toxic legacy of the military herbicide Agent Orange and eradicate the unexploded ordnance in old battlegrounds that turns up after every heavy rain, occasionally with lethal results.

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