Acton Commentary

Humanitarian Free Trade


For the first time since 1963, American vessels have sailed to Cuba carrying US poultry and grain to provide short-term relief to the long-suffering island of Cuba. Whether or not this marks a new era of trade policy with Cuba remains to be seen, but the mere fact of this sale of American goods to Cuba offers an opportunity for reflection concerning the sanctions currently in place against Cuba.

There is no doubt Fidel Castro sits atop a rogue regime that has systematically oppressed the people of Cuba. His track record of violating of human rights, persecuting religion, and suppressing political opposition is well documented. He has subjugated every aspect of life in Cuba to his totalitarian agenda. No doubt, U.S. sanctions against the island were originally conceived as a tool to topple this hateful regime and to aid the island's liberation from his oppressive grip.

Unfortunately for the people of Cuba, it seems that the the U.S. sanctions against Cuba have served only to increase the sufferings of the average Cuban and to tighten Castro's grip. The inability of Cubans to stave off hunger has, no doubt, clouded their judgment as to the geo-political aims of U.S. foreign policy.

Castro, as the island's Communist dictator, attempted to create a state run command and control economic system that has inflicted near fatal harm on the island's economy. Basic and essential goods, such as food and medical supplies, are difficult, if not impossible, for the common man to acquire. Adding insult to injury, the well intentioned, but poorly conceived, U.S. sanctions have consistently denied access to markets that would supply Cubans the essential goods needed to sustain life and health. As a result, Castro has been able to cast the debate in terms of Cuban victimization by an uncaring superpower bent on destroying Cuba. The end result of U.S. sanctions and Castro's politics has been the isolation of Cuba from the world community.

Trade sanctions against Cuba—whatever the rationale—place an undue burden upon people already suffering from the immoral practices of Castro's regime.

Free and open markets are an essential component to the creation of a just social order. To deny access to markets and restrict market freedom is a hallmark of totalitarian regimes. Sadly, in the case of Cuba, it has also been a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. This policy of economic isolation has made it difficult for even the most fundamental political and economic engagements to occur with Cuba. As seen in many formerly communist nations, free markets lead to a higher standard of living and form the foundation from which a free and democratic polity is built. The political and economic isolation that has been imposed on Cuba has led to a lower standard of living and restricted access to the outside world. It is difficult to see how the U.S. can ever expect to see reforms in a nation it has refused to engage even on the most fundamental level of trade.

Given the established rigidity of U.S. policy toward trade with Cuba, the presence of U.S. ships loaded with U.S. goods is, indeed, a significant event. This sale seems to represent a minor victory for opening trade with Cuba, and hopefully, a crack in the rigid stance of U.S. policy. At the very least, it is an indication that U.S. policy makers have realized that the Cuban populace has a right to purchase food and medical supplies, regardless of the regime in power. Selling food to Cuba does not prop up Castro's government. Rather, it may lead some to ask a fundamental question: Why doesn't our “workers paradise” produce enough food to feed us? I have no doubt that within such questions, the seeds of democracy lay waiting to sprout.

Denying Cuban participation in world markets has certainly hindered the creation of even the slightest hint of a just social order in the country. The combination of totalitarian politics and ill-conceived U.S. trade sanctions have served to further restrict the development of the just social order that open trade facilitates. We can only hope this recent capitulation to humanitarian concerns in Cuba will lead the U.S. away from it rigid stance toward Cuba. While merely opening markets to Cuba is not enough to change the repressive regime, trade offers an essential first step in realizing freedom for the Cuban people.