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Break the Embargo on Good Sense About Cuba

Cuba: The world is too small for unilateral embargoes kept in force to appease small domestic constituencies.

August 17, 2000|JERRY BROWN | Former California Gov. Jerry Brown is the mayor of Oakland

The case of Cuba, a country where Americans died fighting the Spanish at San Juan Hill, offers a chance to inject a note of substance into an otherwise sterile presidential debate. I say sterile because not even the germ of a controversial idea has yet surfaced. And many still have the expectation that their future leaders will raise questions not yet vetted by pundits and pollsters.

The time is ripe to present serious issues so that the American voter might actually have a voice in policy decisions. In that spirit, I propose that some presidential candidate discuss lifting the Cuban embargo.

Insiders say that after the election, the embargo will be eased to permit sales of farm products, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. But that would only underscore the emptiness of our quadrennial presidential rite.

Representative democracy works only if the candidates talk about issues before the election, not after. Fear of voter opinion should not be used to stultify debate on fundamental issues; otherwise democracy begins to flatten under a weight of distracting trivia and political gamesmanship.

Cuba is an example of the inertia now destroying honest debate in both Congress and the presidential campaign. This year, for example, overwhelming majorities in the Senate and the House voted to end the embargo against U.S. companies selling food and medicine to Cuba. Yet the leadership in both houses quietly eliminated the proposed changes. With no debate and no notice in the Congressional Record, Tom DeLay (R-Texas) in the House and Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) in the Senate overruled their colleagues under the guise of technical corrections. What cynicism and what an irony for the cause of bringing democracy to Cuba.

The Cold War has been over for 10 years. The original rationale for the Cuban embargo disappeared long ago. In 1975, the Organization of American States--with the U.S. voting in favor--lifted its multilateral embargo. A few years later, the United States assured Cuba that it would move toward normalization of relations if Cuba took three steps: removed troops from Africa, halted support for revolutionaries in Central America and reduced military ties to the Soviet Union. All three steps have been taken, yet successive administrations have not only maintained the embargo but intensified it with the Cuba Democracy Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act of 1996.

Now we have a campaign in which both Al Gore and George W. Bush disagreed with the majority of the American people on returning Elian Gonzalez to Cuba with his father, and both candidates remain silent on whether to open trade with Cuba. Less bashful are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, former secretaries of State George Shultz and Lawrence Eagleburger, the pope and several American cities with sister city relations in Cuba. All support ending the trade embargo.

In effect, a small minority of anti-Castro voters in Florida have reversed the centuries' old Monroe Doctrine by keeping the U.S. out of Cuba. This, in turn, has paved the way for growing European and Canadian involvement through trade, travel and investment. That's why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has made ending the embargo its top legislative priority so that its members--high-tech companies, grain producers, pharmaceutical companies and hotel chains--will get a fair shot at the growing Cuban market.

Fidel Castro has outlasted nine American presidents and every national leader alive at the time his revolution took power in 1959. Paradoxically, even the Cuban exiles now provide his economy $800 million annually by sending remittances home to their relatives. This sum almost equals the net dollar inflow from tourism and sugar exports combined. Current American policy is plainly incoherent.

Political maturity demands that the U.S. exercise its capacity to trade and coexist with nations whose systems it does not approve. The world is now too small for unilateral embargoes maintained against the spirit of free trade and kept in place to appease small, domestic constituencies. With an unstable world population, ever more powerful technologies and profound divisions among nations, it is imperative that old stalemates be broken.

Al Gore and George W. Bush can help themselves and their country by addressing this totally unnecessary vestige of the Cold War. The American people have accepted trade with China and Vietnam despite human rights violations and single-party political systems. Surely voters would now appreciate the logic of extending normal trading relations with our neighbor, Cuba.

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