Spring break is over, which means another opportunity lost from the perspective of former U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt.
And the Summit of the Americas is over, which means another opportunity lost for improving U.S. standing in the Western Hemisphere.
The link between these two statements is Cuba. The Cold War lives on in the tropics.
It was Nethercutt who 12 years ago helped convince his congressional colleagues it was time to relax the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba enough to permit the sale of food and medicine. He promoted trade on behalf of U.S. farmers looking for new markets and in the name of democracy. Commerce, he said, would change Fidel Castro.
All too briefly, the lifting of the embargo was a bonanza for U.S. farmers, who sold commodities worth $700 million to Cuba in 2008. Almost one-half of that was wheat. Total sales have fallen to one-half 2008 levels – wheat to one-third – because other nations will lend Cuba credit, which remains unavailable from the United States.
Also almost unavailable: American tourists. Because of our own travel restrictions. Tourism generates cash, which Cuba uses to buy commodities.
We restrict travel, we hurt farmers.
Nethercutt recalls a 2000 lunch with the dictator in which he suggested Cuba allow in U.S. students who flock to Caribbean resorts each spring. His thinking: Expose Cuban youth to Americans and their wealth, and the pressure would increase for liberalizing the island’s socialist economy. Given the behavior many U.S. students exhibit, that might not have been the best of ideas.
But Castro understood what Nethercutt was about, and was having none of it.
Cancun libre! Not Cuba.
An aged Fidel has since turned power over to his brother, Raul, whose regime might be characterized as repression-lite. Some political prisoners have been released – 3,000 during the recent visit of Pope Benedict XVI – but Cuba remains a single-party state inhospitable to human rights.
That describes China, as well, which Nethercutt and others noted when the embargo was punctured in 2000. We punish Cuba because we can, and because it serves the political ends of anti-Castro forces in Florida who could tip an election for the fourth-largest pile of electoral votes.
But the bullying does not play well in other Latin American states, which are equally resentful of U.S. drug policies that breed narco-terrorism in their midst. Several say they will skip a 2015 meeting in Panama if Cuba is not invited.
President Barack Obama defended U.S. positions, noting Cubans living in the U.S. are now free to return to the island and send money to relatives. Not much of a fig leaf for outdated policy. Meanwhile Canada, which stood bravely by us objecting to Cuba’s presence at the summit, has become the island’s second-largest buyer of Cuban goods – after China! – and fifth-largest seller. Canada provides more than $6 million in foreign aid, and Canadians are free to soak up the Cuban sun. No travel restrictions.
Nethercutt said sunlight is the best cure for repression. Sadly, it is our own government that applies the sunblock.
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