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Jeff Jacoby / August 26, 2010

Lift Embargo on Cuba? Not So Fast

The New York Times reported last week that the Obama administration intends to expand opportunities for Americans to visit Cuba, loosening the rules under which academic, religious, and cultural groups can travel there. The new regulations are seen as a signal of presidential support for legislation sponsored by US Representative Collin Peterson that would repeal the travel limitations altogether.

Is it time to unplug the American embargo against Cuba? The prospect seems to tempt more people than ever. It ought to be resisted.

The New York Times reported last week that the Obama administration intends to expand opportunities for Americans to visit Cuba, loosening the rules under which academic, religious, and cultural groups can travel there. The new regulations are seen as a signal of presidential support for legislation sponsored by US Representative Collin Peterson that would repeal the travel limitations altogether.

The chorus calling for an end to the travel strictures and an increase in trade with Cuba is considerable. Peterson notes that his bill is backed by a coalition of over 140 organizations, “including Human Rights Watch, the US Chamber of Commerce, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the American Farm Bureau Federation.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she has “always been a supporter of lifting the travel ban.” The Brookings Institute recommends “vastly” expanding US-Cuba travel and other “people-to-people contacts,” calling them “a strategic tool to advance US policy objectives.”

Especially compelling is a letter to members of Congress signed by 74 Cuban dissidents who support the legislation. Among them are the noted blogger Yoani Sánchez and Guillermo Farinas, whose 140-day hunger strike earlier this year drew worldwide attention.

“We share the opinion that the isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government,” the letter said, “while any opening serves to inform and empower the Cuban people and helps to further strengthen our civil society.”

But other dissidents take a different view, and 494 of them signed a letter opposing any change in US policy that would reduce pressure on the regime.

“The main problem resides in the absence of liberty for Cubans,” they wrote. “At a moment such as this, to be benevolent with the dictatorship would mean solidarity with the oppressors of the Cuban nation.” The signers of this letter included Ariel Sigler, a pro-democracy activist who spent seven years behind bars before being exiled from Cuba last month, and Reina Luisa Tamayo, whose son Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after fasting for 82 days to protest the abuse of prisoners in Cuban jails.

Clearly, there are men and women of good will on both sides of this debate. And clearly the end of the Castro reign is a consummation devoutly to be wished. But will that day really be brought closer by allowing American tourists, exports, and cash to pour into Cuba?

The argument might be more plausible if Cuba were a Caribbean North Korea, cut off from contact with the world. It isn’t. Ordinary Cubans may live with poverty and repression, but the government has turned the island into a major tourist attraction, complete with deluxe hotels and beach resorts. Some 2.4 million tourists visited Cuba last year, more than 800,000 of them Canadians. For that matter, tens of thousands of Americans make it to Cuba each year, despite the restrictions. Yet for all that exposure to foreign citizens, money, and ideas, the power of the Castro brothers is undiminished.

By the same token, if international commerce had the power to undo the regime, wouldn’t it have been undone by now? The US embargo, after all, doesn’t stop Cuba from trading with any other country in the world. Indeed, even with the “embargo,” the United States is one of Cuba’s top five trading partners.

The transformative power of free trade is not to be denied, but trade with Cuba isn’t free. There is no Cuban parallel to the economic openness and flourishing private sector that has transformed China. Jerry Haar, a dean of business administration at Florida International University, observes in the Latin Business Chronicle that one unavoidable fact of life faces exporters to Cuba: “The entire distribution chain is in the hands of the Cuban military and intelligence services.” Foreign investors are compelled to deal with the state and its subsidiaries, since they control the “hotels, foreign trade operations, equipment sales, and factories.”

As long as the Castros maintain their stranglehold on the Cuban economy, enriching that economy enriches — and entrenches — them. The travel ban and embargo have not ended Cuba’s misery, but lifting them unilaterally will only make that misery worse. Rewarding the dictators who keep Cuba in chains is not the way to set Cubans free.

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.

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