Aug. 17, 2007, 10:44PM
Peacemaking for profit: U.S. shouldn't wait to ratchet down Cuba embargo
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
This time last summer, Cuban President Fidel Castro was very sick — and many backers of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba were very happy. Since it began in 1962, the embargo has done nothing to achieve its goal of a Cuban democracy. But, it briefly seemed, nature itself might do the trick, dethroning Castro and prompting political turmoil and transformation, followed by an influx of triumphant exiles from Miami.
Instead, Fidel lived and the regime he founded remains solidly in power.
The embargo, on the other hand, has become an outstanding example of squandered U.S. diplomatic opportunities — opportunities all the more precious the longer we are at war. Starting now, gradually dismantling the embargo would open our doors to an eager trading partner. It would also send a crucial message about the United States' ability to coexist with peaceful governments all over the world.
Easing the embargo would not mean condoning Cuba's dictatorship. Even under the stewardship of Castro's brother Raul, Cuba is unmistakably a police state. The sole political party is the Communist Party; spies and informants dog citizens' every activity. Amnesty International reports that Cuba detains 81 political prisoners.
Worse for most Cubans, though, is communism's restriction of the economy. A government worker makes an average of $16 a month, and most university graduates can't find work that makes use of their skills. U.S. economic sanctions mainly affect ordinary Cubans, depriving them of affordable imports and work opportunities.
The United States has suffered little from the embargo. True, we once were Cuba's main trading partner; today, Texas in particular could benefit from Cuban oil, agriculture and shipping ventures. But most presidential candidates see these as glancing losses next to the political payoff from Florida's Cuban-American voting bloc.
What the United States does need, and urgently, is diplomatic capital. Free of charge, our Cuba embargo has given Castro and his protege, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an enemy straight from Central Casting with which to justify their regimes. The embargo also alienates people throughout Latin America, including many who risked their lives fighting for democracy in their own countries. For many, the embargo is the disproportionate wrath of the Americas' Goliath toward a country that dared to defy it.
Ratcheting down the embargo, and the assumptions about it, would echo positively around the world. Venezuela, though, might be the most immediate logjam to unstick. President Chavez wants nothing more than an old-time Cold War enmity with the United States. The drama therein provides him with material for countless speeches, and endless distractions as he mines at democratic institutions. Imagine how his rhetoric and policies might be retooled if Cuba and the United States suddenly began cooperating on counterterrorism, counter-narcotics and technical exchange projects.
Even before Castro's illness, Cuban officials signaled openness to such associations. Castro even warned Chavez not to make a permanent enemy of the United States. Ice breakers such as counterterrorism or other information exchanges could be first steps to ending the trade and travel embargoes. But the administration and, most recently, Congress reject this approach. President Bush actually tightened the travel embargo, forbidding Cuban-Americans to visit family members there more than once every three years.
This is the opposite of how we should be approaching Cuba. Our Cold War freeze demonstrably did nothing to strengthen democracy there. It has, however, bolstered a widespread and dangerous view that the United States can only see the world in terms of "us" and "them." Made available to Cuba, American ideas, travelers and trade could neutralize that view globally, at a time when we badly need the change.