American policy toward Cuba is an abject failure. Nine U.S. Presidents have come and gone (and a 10th is about to depart); Fidel Castro has just resigned, yet his closest supporters remain in power.
The real victims of this misguided policy are the two generations of Cubans who have grown up under the U.S. embargo that has deprived them of access to U.S. consumer products. More important, it has isolated them from the ideals of democracy and freedom, the very things we most want for them.
In the meantime, other nations, including most of our closest allies, are openly trading with and sending tourists to Cuba. There is a substantial market there, especially for our agricultural products, and we are missing out on much of it. Embargoes are almost meaningless when the rest of the world ignores them.
Since 2002, North Dakota has exported nearly $40 million in agricultural commodities—mostly pulse crops (peas, chickpeas, lentils, etc.)—to Cuba, despite the competitive disadvantage imposed on us by our own government restrictions. Lifting those restrictions would mean greater trade opportunities.
Cuba’s government is much like those of China and Vietnam, Communist nations that enjoy trade, tourism, and even the friendship of the U.S. Yet we treat Cuba, a tiny nation with virtually no political, economic, or military power, as a pariah.
The U.S. should end the trade and business embargo with Cuba and move quickly to allow tourism between our two countries. Most important, we should restore full diplomatic relations with Havana. Only then will we have the leverage to press the new Cuban leadership to restore human rights, establish a free market-based economy, and move to democracy.
Until we do these things, however, we will watch as others enjoy the benefits of trade with Cuba and play an active role in the development of the island. The U.N. General Assembly has voted repeatedly for an end to the embargo against Cuba, most recently by a margin of 183 to 4. It is time to admit we are wrong; it is time to change our policy—for ourselves and for the people of Cuba.
The effectiveness of using economic sanctions for political influence is an often debated aspect of U.S. foreign policy. The practice, however, is not new or particularly American. Pericles’ decree banning the Megarians from the Athenian market and ports helped incite the Great Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C.
In the case of Cuba in 2008, after nearly five decades of economic sanctions, the debate continues. Critics of the U.S. embargo note that economic sanctions have failed to change the nature of the Cuban government and have allowed the country to use the embargo for propaganda purposes. Abandoning U.S. trade restrictions, they argue, would expose Cuba to the “American way of life” and help foment social pressures for economic reforms and political liberalization.
Regrettably, this outlook stems from a U.S.-centric vantage point extrapolated to the Cuban government. Embargo opponents make the flawed assumption that the current Cuban government is earnestly interested in close relations with its northern neighbor—and willing to jeopardize its total control and 50-year legacy of opposition to Yankee imperialism in exchange for an improvement in the economic well-being of Cubans. Raul Castro’s recent speech to Cuba’s National Assembly should put an end to that notion.
The embargo is not the cause of the catastrophic state of Cuba’s economy. Mismanagement and the fact that “command economy” models don’t work lie at the root of Cuba’s economic misery. Despite the existence of the embargo, the U.S. is Cuba’s sixth-largest trading partner and biggest food supplier.
Moreover, U.S. tourism will not bring democracy to Cuba. For years, hundreds of thousands of tourists from Canada, Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere have visited the island. Cuba is no more democratic today. On what mystical grounds do opponents of the embargo offer that American tourists will do the trick?
There are many negative unintended consequences to unilaterally lifting the embargo without meaningful changes in Cuba’s political and economic model. Most important of all, it would ensure the continuation of the current totalitarian regime by strengthening state enterprises that would be the main beneficiaries of currency inflows into business owned by the Cuban government.Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek.com Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.
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