It's Time to Do Unto Cuba as We Do Unto China

It's Time to Do Unto Cuba as We Do Unto China

Last week the White House and Congress agreed on legislation that would permit sales of U.S. food and medicine to Cuba for the first time in 28 years. Some conservatives have opposed this deal because they think it will prop up one of the last remaining communist regimes. In reality, this legislation is a moral victory that should help achieve Pope John Paul II's desire for Cuba to “open itself up to the world and … the world to open itself up to Cuba.”

Everyone, except perhaps the National Council of Churches, knows it's true that Cuba has a terrible human-rights record. Americans are reluctant to appear to “reward” Fidel Castro, especially as it's also true that Mr. Castro's communist policies have done more to harm his country's economic situation than have U.S. sanctions.

However, the recent debate over trade with China–one of the most intellectually productive in political memory–has driven home the point that human-rights problems in totalitarian countries are not best addressed through sanctions and protectionism. Open trade and cultural exchange create greater opportunities for the monitoring of such societies by outsiders, even as increased prosperity empowers the victims of oppressive governments to stand up for their rights.

The hypocrisy in treating Cuba and China differently should be apparent. People on the left have argued against trade with China, while saying that trade with Cuba is a moral necessity. Those on the right contend that trade with China is crucial to Improving human rights there, yet refuse to contemplate the loosening of sanctions against Cuba. Just about the only consistent voices in this debate have been those of protectionists and die-hard Cold Warriors, who oppose trade with either country.

But any linkage of morality and economics requires a consistent application of the principle that trade and human rights reinforce each other. Sanctions are not only economically damaging–they are also politically counterproductive and morally dubious.

In toy visits to both China and Cuba, I never encountered a citizen who hoped for less–as opposed to more–contact with the U.S. No one ever came up to me and whispered: ‘Please retain sanctions against us. They help us fight against the human-rights violations of our government.“

On the contrary, most victims of these harsh governments believe that dealing with U.S. companies, as well as having them set up shop in their countries, will actually have a liberating influence on the lives of ordinary people. Cubans and Chinese fervently desire to have more exchange with ‘Americans at every level, whether it takes the form of tourism, trade or technology.

The White House and Congress are happy to make this argument in regard to China. But Cuba is always said to be different. This may be because Castro is a sworn enemy of the U.S. Far from making overtures to us, he continues to vilify all things American, particularly the exiled community In Cuba that lost so much in the revolution. Relations grew especially tense because of the controversy over Elian Gonzalez. Before Elian was returned to Cuba last week, Mr. Castro staged mass rallies to attack the U.S. for harboring him. Where is the extended hand of friendship that we see sometimes from the Chinese government?

True, Mr. Castro has said that he wants the sanctions repealed. Hut he is also fully aware that these punitive measures allow him to deploy the U.S. as a scapegoat for the utter failure of his communist system. And why are the Cuban exiles in Miami so passionately opposed to the idea of dropping sanctions? For them, the anti-Castro measures are a matter of history and justice. Their property was looted and their lives destroyed by this man, so their feelings are wholly understandable.

Their case, however, is less persuasive when you look at the practicalities. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.), for example, argues that sanctions “constitute decisive leverage for a democratic transition to take place once Castro is gone from the scene.” For him, trade with the U.S. could result in “the Cuban people condemned to decades more of oppression.”

Waiting for a foreign leader to die while we refuse any economic contact is surely not a coherent policy, nor one that is consistent with a desire to promote human rights. In any case, the sanctions are not hurting Mr. Castro personally. As for dictating political events in the post-Castro era, aren't sanctions more likely to foster resentment among Cubans that could reduce our future influence in Cuba by a significant extent?

It's hard to take too seriously the prediction that trade would make life worse for ordinary Cubans. The Cuban people have endured great hardship for four decades, both from the oppressive policies of the Castro regime and from the effects of external sanctions. Opening trade relations–or at the very least permitting an inflow of food and medicine–actually holds out the prospect of breaking a long running impasse.

Others say that because Mr. Castro controls the economy, trade with Cuba will benefit only the government, not the people. Yet if that were true, the Cuban people would surely be the first to oppose a change in the status quo. To repeat: From my visits there, and after close contact with a wide range of people, I have never heard a Cuban say that sanctions have had a positive effect on their lives.

There are many issues to be worked out, of course. Numerous American companies and citizens have claims for property seized after 1959, amounting to $6 billion. In fairness, these claims should he addressed. But are they more likely to be settled with, or without, greater economic contacts with Cuba? In that unfortunate country, as in China, free trade gives hope to the people who suffer the most from governments that violate human rights.