Article Published in The Chicago Tribune
Illinois leaders are of two minds about Cuba.
Gov. George Ryan, looking to the future, is going to Havana to deliver food and medical aid and explore trade opportunities.
Rep. Dennis Hastert uses his power as speaker of the House to preserve something from the past–the Cuba trade embargo. This month he crafted an unusual legislative maneuver to bury a Senate initiative that would have allowed Americans to sell food and medicine to Cuba.
For his efforts, the speaker wins the plaudits of those who think it makes sense for America to isolate Cuba–and the governor wins the enmity of that same group.
Who is right?
One might object to the governor’s trip if it were disrupting a foreign policy that is achieving good results. That is hardly the case.
Since the Berlin Wall fell a decade ago, the trade embargo has been tightened twice with the intention of bringing down Cuba’s government. It hasn’t worked.
Nor has it won support among Cubans, who would welcome trade with the U.S.
Cuba’s Catholic bishops call our policy cruel. Elizardo Sanchez, Cuba’s leading dissident who has spent nine years in and out of jail, says the embargo “hurts the people, not the regime,” and is “an odd way of demonstrating support for human rights.”
What would happen if food and medicine exports were allowed? American farmers would gain a new market that now buys over $700 million yearly in farm products from South America, Europe and even Asia. Cheaper imports would save money for Cuba’s state trading companies, a fact the governor’s critics would decry. But consider this: Is it a victory for America if rice, milk, penicillin and X-rays are more expensive in Cuba?
Some might say there’s a hidden agenda–corporate America really wants to invest in Cuba. Wouldn’t that help the Cuban government? Perhaps it would. Cuba’s economy has survived the loss of Soviet support in part by welcoming small amounts of foreign investment.
But Cuba’s people also benefit. Joint ventures with foreign corporations are teaching capitalist business practices to the work force and creating the island’s best-paying jobs.
I met a 33-year-old manager who earns nine times the average Cuban wage, because in addition to his peso salary, his Canadian employer pays him $100 each month. Food is not a worry for his family.
What if Americans start demanding the right to travel freely to Cuba, just as we travel elsewhere? Our citizens are often America’s best ambassadors. But they would do more than communicate; the dollars they spend would help to support Cuba’s small but important sector of family entrepreneurs.
Gov. Ryan is right to question a Cuba policy that has not changed since the Cold War. It is a policy that aims to isolate Cuba’s government–but it is impossible to block trade, travel and normal human contact without isolating the Cuban people too.
That is at odds with America’s best values–but worse than that, it achieves no practical results. It amounts to an embargo on American influence.
Philip Peters, a state department official during the Reagan and Bush administrations, writes about the Cuban economy and is vice president of the Lexinton Institute in Arlington, Va.
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