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Carrots for Cuba

We've lifted trade and travel embargoes on China and Vietnam. Why should Havana be different?

October 26, 2007

Name three countries that still have highly repressive communist regimes and lousy human rights records. All three have had bitter political and military conflicts with the United States within living memory. One has weapons of mass destruction and is also engaged in a major military buildup. The U.S. has normalized political and trade relations with two of the three, on the theory that integrating these nations into the global economy will at least moderate and at best undermine their regimes and push them gradually toward democracy. What distinguishes the third country, which poses no military threat to the U.S. but remains subject to harsh political and economic sanctions?

The countries are China and Vietnam, which the United States recognized in 1979 and 1995, respectively, and Cuba, still an archvillain in Washington's eyes.

In the wake of 9/11, Washington's thinking about Cuba -- when it has thought about the island at all -- has mainly been tinged with the unjustified hope that its oppressive regime will reform or collapse following the death of Fidel Castro. Politicians of both parties generally assume that lifting the trade embargo on the hated revolutionary would be a nonstarter, but that U.S. policy would be ripe for reevaluation after his passing. But in a major speech this week, President Bush attempted to put his stamp on U.S.-Cuba policy through the end of his presidency and beyond with a defiant embrace of the spectacularly unsuccessful U.S. policies of the past. While eloquently describing Cuba's sins against human rights and economic and political freedoms, Bush offered only the fantasy that the Cuban people will revolt against their rulers. He declared the transfer of power from Fidel Castro to his brother, Raoul, unacceptable to the United States. And he ruled out lifting the embargo until Havana grants its people freedom. Until then, Bush said, trading with Cuba "would merely enrich the elites in power and strengthen their grip."

This last assertion deserves more scrutiny. Why does the theory of economic engagement apply to China and Vietnam but not to Cuba? The connection between economic and political liberalization is indirect and unproved in the short run; engagement policies look best where they've been in place for a few decades. China was a brutal regime when Washington began normalizing diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1972 to counter the power of the Soviet Union. By 1978, when trade relations were normalized, there were signs of change. Today, China is no longer a totalitarian state, though it is still authoritarian and sometimes abusive. Vietnam's oil reserves and its fumbling efforts at economic reform factored into the U.S. decision to restore relations. Twelve years later, Hanoi's human rights record is little improved, despite impressive economic growth.

All the while, Cuba was commanding its economy into the ground and trying to slay the Internet, which the government rightly views as an existential threat. The dictatorship is a failed anachronism -- but so is the futile U.S. policy of Castro-hating. Nearly five decades of attempts to isolate Cuba and bring Castro to his knees have succeeded only in impoverishing the island and driving it into the arms of any anti-American protector. Cuba's dependency on the Soviet Union has been replaced by an alliance with Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's oil-flush leftist president.

Bush may be too unimaginative to try a new policy toward Cuba, but the next president shouldn't be. For starters, the U.S. should allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba, as the only reliable way to circumvent Castro's information blockade. And there may be a good case for "smart" U.S. Treasury sanctions that would specifically target Fidel and Raoul Castro and their cronies, as the only way to hold Cuba's leaders accountable for their human rights travesties. The indiscriminate U.S. embargo, however, only hurts the Cuban poor. Worse, it gives the Castro brothers a convenient Yanqui scapegoat for the economic mismanagement and misery they have inflicted on their people.

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