Sitting a mere 90 miles off the southern tip of the United States, Cuba is perhaps the one area for foreign policy many politicians ignore unless you are from Florida. This writer is of the opinion that greater exposure to American products would enhance the United States in international affairs. A 50 year history of trade embargoes against Cuba have done little to change that country’s politics. Wouldn’t it make greater sense to adopt a new policy that may usher in an era of possible democracy in Cuba?
There are six laws that govern trade relations with Cuba including the Trading With the Enemy Act that dates back to 1917. However, it was the Kennedy Administration that first directly targeted Cuba. More recently, the Cuban Democracy Act (1992), the Helms-Burton Act (1996) and the Trade Sanctions Reform Act (2000) furthered the cause of sanctions against Cuba. The last one in 2000 helped ease some sanctions, but still demanded that Cuba pay in cash for American imports and that the United States could not import Cuban products. This underscores the hypocrisy of the current policy. The United States is Cuba’s #4 trading partner despite an embargo while Cuba ranks #33 in terms of United States trading partners.
There is a history- some good, some bad- between the two countries. However, that is the past. Republicans needs to look to the future. Since 1961, these trade sanctions have done nothing to weaken the Castro’s Communist hold on Cuba. It is also further hypocritical that Cuba is singled out. Our #2 trading partner is a Communist country- China- with a human rights record as bad as Cuba’s. Venezuela, which is increasingly hostile to the the US, ranks #18 while a country where we fought a costly war and today is Communist- Vietnam- ranks #27, higher than Cuba.
A vibrant trade embargo made geopolitical sense when we were waging a Cold War against the Soviet Union.. Cuba relied on Russia as its largest benefactor and Soviet aid and trade kept Cuba afloat. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, they lost their largest and most powerful ally. Improved relations between the United States and Cuba today would help thwart current Russian global strategy. The United States can provide more needed commodities to Cuba at higher quality in a more timely fashion and, most importantly, cheaper than Russia. From a global strategic standpoint, improving relations with Cuba makes great sense, especially as concerns Russia. Furthermore, since China is Cuba’s largest trading partner, American trade can cut into their market share.
The greater the exposure to American products, the greater will be the pressure by the Cuban people to demand change in Cuba. Under Raoul Castro, he has pledged fealty to socialism while relaxing some private business ownership. Currently in Cuba, there is a huge black market demand for foreign goods- particularly American goods.
Coupled with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the downward production in Cuba’s agricultural sector (especially after 2000), today Cuba imports nearly 80% of their food. There are two things the United States is good at producing- arms and food. There are numerous crops, livestock and poultry products that Cuba is in desperate need of now and which the United States produces in abundance. The only two things that Cuba has in abundance is sugar and tobacco (and nickel). And there is likely the problem.
It is not necessarily the grandstanding by politicians like Robert Menendez (D-NJ) or other Cuban-American leaders. It is the domestic sugar producers who have kept Cuba at arms length since they fear the importation of cheaper sugar. Part of the problem is American agricultural policy which boils down to phony capitalism by any other name where large agricultural concerns receive government hand outs in the form of subsidies and price supports. That is one thing, but for a single industry to dictate sound foreign and trade policy is another thing.
Likely, domestic sugar producers will experience some transitional pain and that is to be expected. But, sugar cane farms can be converted to other agricultural uses like rice. When New Zealand ceased subsidies, there was initial pain but grazing land for sheep- their number one export at the time- was converted to tourism and other crops, including grapes for wine and other fruits. The result was an explosion in their agricultural sector. And like that country, the domestic sugar industry will survive.
The United States enjoys greater technological innovation in agriculture than New Zealand and the transitional period would be less painful here than it was there. Statistics from the Agricultural Marketing Research Center bear these facts out: while domestic sugar production increased in 2011, the number of sugar cane farms decreased by more than 200. The states that would be the hardest hit would be Louisiana and Florida, but conversion of land to other uses coupled with increased shipping commerce of American goods from ports in Miami and New Orleans would alleviate some of the economic impact.
Provided there are safeguards to make sure Cuba pays its bills on time, the current requirement that they pay in cash is counterproductive to increased trade and exposure to American products and democracy. Also, radio, television and other transmissions into Cuba can strengthen cultural ties. Besides thwarting Russian economic influence in Cuba and competing with China, the US must also consider thwarting Venezuelan designs in Latin America. With Cuba about to begin offshore oil exploration, it is Russian, Chinese and Venezuelan energy concerns reaping the benefits.
It is estimated that the current policies cost American exports $1.2 billion annually. Although this is not a large amount in the overall sense, it is a hindrance to the Southeast section of the US. The Port of Mobile, Alabama could benefit greatly from more open trade with Cuba. Besides the probable lowering of sugar prices domestically, certain fish products can be imported with minimal effect on US fishing interests. For example, more than half of Cuba’s spiny lobster catch occurs during the Florida off-season. With increased trade, Cuba will have to make some necessary changes that do not mesh with a socialist economic scheme. Their banking, insurance and finance sectors would have to be liberalized. There will be a need for better Cuban infrastructure and the demand for American engineering, construction, shipping and transportation expertise will be required.
The current policy has failed to achieve its political goals of changing Cuba. It has been a 50+ year failed experiment. From a strategic standpoint, increasing trade with Cuba and more normalized relations would thwart Chinese, Russian and Venezualan designs in the region. Exposure to American products and expertise in certain areas will only increase the demand for change in Cuba from the Cuban people. Domestically, it would increase agricultural exports and directly benefit the Southeastern United States- an region that suffers from high unemployment in certain areas. Finally, a 2007 poll found that Cuban-Americans here in the United States favor relaxed trade with Cuba and more normal relations.
The main argument against this policy is that the United States would be, in effect, propping up a Communist regime. This is a phony argument. Greater exposure to a non-socialist economic system will further the demise of Cuba’s experiment with Communism. Although brain-washed into Communism, the Cuban people are not stupid (as their 97% literacy rate attests). They will realize that the improvements in their standard of living is tied to capitalist and American ideals.
Cuba is the outcast of Communist countries when it comes to the United States and foreign policy. It is time that our policy towards Cuba gets out of Cold War mode and enters the 21st century. We are doing ourselves a huge disfavor with the current policy- a policy that has achieved little to exact change in Cuba. And although there are some human rights considerations with respect to Cuba, aren’t there also human rights abuses with many other trading partners? Although it will not happen over night and there will be resistance from Havana, eventually our greatest export to Cuba would be democracy.