Time to lift the embargo on Cuba
BY MICHAEL HONDA
Few know that Cuba, infamous for its socialism, cigars and salsa, was recently the United States' largest rice export market and is the fifth largest export market in Latin America for U.S. farm exports. Cuba holds $20 billion in trade with America over a three-year term. Our economy could benefit mightily from better relations, yet we alienate this potential ally.
When I traveled to Cuba with a congressional delegation, it became clear that the embargo is imprudent politically, economically and socially. Everyone we met with -- U.S. and Cuban government officials, trade organizations, journalists, cultural attachés, foreign diplomats and rural farmers -- confirmed this point.
Politically, now that Latin America stands beside Cuba -- as evidenced by diplomatic reinstatements with holdouts El Salvador and Costa Rica -- and the reintegration of Cuba into the Organization for American States and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CLACS) -- the United States risks ruinous relations with countries who see the blockade as backward. The United States is already marginalized: CLACS explicitly bars U.S. participation.
The impact of this Latin tack towards insularity is not insignificant. Consider grandstanding by Brazil's President Lula da Silva, who rebuffed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's efforts to bring Brazil in on Iran sanctions while courting Cuba's leadership. Lula, capitalizing on Cuba's appetite for growth, proposed investments in industrial, agriculture and infrastructure projects, including ports and hotels, and an agreement with Brazil's oil company.
We will see more of this. The Cubans are seeking suitors. Like the Bank of the South, Latin America's attempt to wean countries off U.S. institutions like the World Bank, the longer we keep Cuba at arm's length, the more likely Brazil and others will take our place. The longer we keep Cuba listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, an allegation roundly criticized by diplomats, the more we risk the credibility of our national security regime and reputation in the region.
Economically, the case for cooperation is even clearer. Despite the trade embargo, there is some engagement. Cuba continues to be reliant on U.S. agriculture. Since 2002, we have been Cuba's largest supplier of food and agricultural products, with Cuba purchasing more than $3.2 billion worth of products since 2001.
This agricultural reliance is in jeopardy, which puts American farmers at risk. In 2008, U.S. food imports to Cuba totaled $712 million, declined to $533 million last year and are declining this year. Cuba, having witnessed strong economic growth in the early 2000s at 11 and 13 percent, is now struggling to make ends meet, slipping below 2 percent in 2009. Beyond foodstuffs, other natural resources offer potential for partnership. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates nine billion barrels of oil are available in Cuba, plus an estimated nine billion cubic meters of natural gas. The Cuban government cites higher oil numbers, at 20 billion barrels. Either way, there's money to be made, and Cubans welcome participation. While the United States disengages, countries like Brazil, Russia, Venezuela and China are talking. We are clearly missing investment opportunities.
Socially, Cubans emphatically embrace the cultural convergences between our countries. Their love of music, art, dance, history and architecture is ubiquitous, drawing 2.5 million tourists annually to Cuba, 800,000 of which are Canadian. If the travel ban was lifted, two million Americans are expected to travel there immediately, and ultimately growing to four million. This is hardly surprising. Havana retains the Caribbean's largest, oldest, and best-preserved Spanish colonial architecture. The city's charm is intoxicating.
We should expand cooperation on education, medicine, science and sports through nonpolitical, people-to-people exchanges. The U.S. president has the authority to return the rules for academic, science, religious and other ``purposeful travel'' so that exchange can flourish again. This is how we rebuild relations.
None of this negates the sobering negatives characterizing U.S.-Cuba relations. Cubans remain poor, irrespective of education (at nearly 100 percent literacy) and healthcare (everyone is covered, for everything). The government is inadequately serving the population, and there is a palpable, public rethink surfacing within society, from government officials to academics to farmers. Reform is coming, though not as soon as, or in the form, the United States prefers.
America's annual $60 million in democracy-building, which is covertly distributed for explicitly stated regime change, exacerbates the problem by goading the government, jeopardizing the safety of reformers and marginalizing the U.S. Interests Section there. The American penchant for positioning Cuba-related communiqués as primarily human-rights reprimands resonates rankly as an inconsistent singling out.
Amid the acrimony, the United States and Cuba are cautiously coordinating on areas of mutual interest, like migration, counter-narcotics and disaster preparedness. The United States must build on this sooner rather than later, before others opt in while we opt out.
Cuba is not the enemy. She may frustrate the American proclivity for democracy promotion, but her behavior is nothing near as nefarious as U.S. allies elsewhere. The time to engage is now. Cubans are increasingly confabbing about reform while we sideline ourselves from the conversation.
Michael Honda is a U.S. congressman from the 15th District in California.
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