Article Published in the Bridge News (Washington, DC)
The following article was distributed nationally by the Bridge News syndicate in New York. It appeared with the headline above on May 2, 2000 in the Montgomery Advertiser in Montgomery, Alabama.
Will a Cuban boy’s reunion with his father in America lead to better relations between the two nations? It’s highly unlikely, given the gulf between American democracy and Cuban socialism.
Few Americans of any political stripe would let Cuba off the hook on its human rights record. And just one day after Elian Gonzalez rejoined his father, Fidel Castro himself predicted relations would not improve.
But even as competition between the political systems goes on, it still makes sense for Americans to re-examine a policy that attempts to isolate Cuba through an economic embargo.
The embargo certainly made sense when Cuba, a satellite of the Soviet Union, promoted insurgencies in the Americas. The United States had every reason to make Cuba as expensive a satellite as possible for the Soviets to maintain.
But today, a decade after the Berlin Wall fell, Cuba poses no security threat. A Pentagon report describes its military capability as “residual” and “defensive.” The embargo, tightened by former President George Bush in 1992 and President Clinton in 1996, has added to Cuba’s economic woes but has not shaken a government that has been in power for 41 years.
What could a review of relations accomplish? First, it could help the Cuban people. Allowing sales of food and agricultural supplies would reduce Cuba’s food import costs. It would increase food supplies by helping the private farmers whose products fill Cuba’s farmers’ markets.
If Americans were permitted to invest in this sector, they could join businesses from Canada, Israel and Europe that pay the best wages in Cuba and expose Cubans to capitalism in the hotels, resorts, mines and factories they operate.
Second, it could extend American influence. Allowing Americans to travel freely to Cuba would create countless contacts between people, schools, churches and families. There’s a reason President Ronald Reagan never restricted travel to the Soviet bloc: Private citizens are our nation’s best ambassadors.
Third, it could achieve practical benefits. In selected areas, Washington and Havana cooperate because we have shared interests as Caribbean neighbors.
A 1994 migration accord encourages legal emigration from Cuba and discourages dangerous departures of the type that almost killed Gonzalez. It also establishes periodic communication between U.S. and Cuban officials. This can serve as a model for work on other issues, and drug enforcement should be at the top of the list.
Drug consumption is low in Cuba, but the island’s north shore is a drop-off point for Bahamas smugglers whose speedboats retrieve drugs dropped from South American aircraft.
As tourism and trade increase, Cuba could become a hub for drug traffic bound for Europe or North America. Europe and Canada, recognizing this threat, are helping to develop Cuba’s anti-drug capabilities.
U.S. collaboration has been limited, but is now expanding slightly. Voice links have just been established between the U.S. Coast Guard and its Havana counterpart, and a Coast Guard liaison officer is now stationed in Havana.
Could more be done? Cuba says it wants expanded cooperation. In 1996, Cuba aided in the capture and search of a ship carrying six tons of cocaine and Cuban officials testified in the U.S. trial that convicted the traffickers.
With Washington preparing to send billions to fight the drug war in Colombia, it seems strange not to send top drug enforcement officials to gauge Havana’s intentions and explore possibilities for cooperation. With these actions, America would still support democracy and human rights.
Increased trade and travel would also heed the views of Cubans who seem to want greater contact with America, regardless of their political views. “There’s nothing positive in isolating a people,” a Havana priest told me on a recent visit.
As America look to the day when a new generation leads Cuba, let’s start building the contacts and achievements that will serve both American and Cuban interests.
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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