In her final press conference as Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s message to the Cuban people was succinct. In reference to the aging Fidel Castro she said, “I wish them the actuarial tables.” It was an odd statement on behalf of a superpower that could have used the previous eight years to exercise considerable influence on its small island neighbor.
It was also a fitting end to the Clinton administration’s passive approach to Cuba policy, where the impulse to reassess strategy was nearly always trumped by the imperative of avoiding political risk in Florida. Even in 1998, when Republican leaders such as Sen. John Warner and former Secretary of State George Shultz urged the creation of a presidential bipartisan commission—a golden opportunity to conduct a long overdue post-Cold War review that could have included the full range of Cuban-American voices—politics held the Clinton White House back.
President Bush has an opportunity to make a fresh start. Today’s strict embargo policy, based on the goal of denying hard currency to the Cuban government, made sense during the Cold War when Cuba was a genuine security threat and Washington had reason to make Cuba an expensive satellite for the Soviet Union to maintain.
Today, with sanctions twice tightened during the 1990s, Fidel Castro remains firmly in power. With the Soviet-era security threat gone, it is time to recognize that isolating Cuba from commerce and contact with Americans is counterproductive because it reduces American influence in Cuba.
President Bush’s Cuba policy is not yet defined, but Secretary of State Colin Powell has said that “We will only participate in those activities with Cuba that benefit the people directly and not the government.”
This standard sounds good in theory, but in practice it is impossible to achieve. Virtually every form of economic activity with Cuba benefits both the people and the government. Today, European and Canadian trade, investment and tourism benefit Cuban state enterprises. But they also increase the earnings of Cuban workers, expose Cubans to foreigners and non-socialist ideas, bring capitalist business practices, and reshape the Cuban economy to fit its comparative advantages in the global system. This adds up to humanitarian benefits for the Cuban people, and a head start on a future transition to a more market-oriented economy.
U.S. economic activity also benefits both the state and the people of Cuba. Family remittances, estimated by the United Nations at over $700 million annually, bring more foreign exchange than sugar exports. Many of these dollars land in the Cuban treasury when Cubans spend them in state retail stores. U.S.-Cuba phone connections allow families to communicate, but generate over $70 million a year for the state phone company. A strict application of Secretary Powell’s own standard would cut off these valuable benefits.
The trick, then, for an administration that seems to want to end unilateral trade sanctions everywhere but Cuba, will not be to reach for Secretary Powell’s unattainable standard. Rather, it will be to choose among forms of engagement that serve America’s humanitarian interest in helping Cubans to prosper, our long-term economic interest of nudging Cuba toward a market economy, and our political interest in exposing Cubans to Americans and American ideas.
President Bush could begin by supporting the congressional consensus, expressed last year by greater than three-to-one majorities in the House and Senate, to lift all restrictions on food and medicine sales. This step would begin to reverse the implicit assumption in U.S. policy that American interests are somehow served if products such as rice, powdered milk, and drugs are more scarce or expensive for Cubans to acquire. It would also support the calls by Cuban dissidents such as Elizardo Sanchez and the Christian Liberation Movement for an end to this part of the embargo. It “hurts the people, not the regime,” Mr. Sanchez says, and is “an odd way of demonstrating support for human rights.”
President Bush could then end all restrictions on Cuban-American remittances, now limited to $1,200 a year, and on family visits, which are permitted only in cases of “humanitarian emergency”—a cruel regulation that forces families to lie by the thousands each December when they visit relatives at Christmas.
Finally, the president could support an end to the travel ban imposed on Americans–a mistaken policy that treats free contact between American and Cuban societies as a detriment rather than an opportunity. “If we have a million Americans walking on the streets of Havana, you will have something like the pope’s visit multiplied by 10,” independent journalist Manuel David Orrio told the Chicago Tribune in 1999. A Havana clergyman told me last month that visiting Americans “would permeate this place with the idea of a free society.”
Like other international travelers, Americans’ spending would boost Cubans’ earnings in hotels and restaurants and expand Cuba’s incipient private sector. An influx of U.S. travelers would immediately create a shortage of lodging that would be filled partially by Cubans who legally rent rooms in their homes. Demand for the services of artisans, taxis and private restaurants would also increase, adding to the disposable income that sustains other entrepreneurs, from carpenters and repairmen to food vendors and tutors.
As this sector, now 150,000 strong, gains income and expands, demand would increase for the freely priced, privately sold produce in Cuba’s 300 farmers markets, benefiting farmers across Cuba who have no contact with tourists. Americans would experience “the interface between the entrepreneurial folks” that President Bush lauds as a virtue of open trade with communist China, to say nothing of the value of their personal contact with Cubans. This may be why a Florida International University poll shows a slim majority of Cuban-Americans, and three fourths of the most recent Cuban immigrants, supporting an end to the travel ban.
A policy opening of this type would leave the trade embargo largely intact for future review, and it would do nothing to diminish America’s stark opposition to Cuban human rights practices. However, it would increase concrete support to the Cuban people, and it would spur the development of free-market activity in the post-Castro Cuba that is now taking shape.
PHILIP PETERS, a State Department official during the Reagan and Bush administrations, is vice president of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
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