Debating policy toward Cuba

Posted: Apr 22, 2004 12:00 AM

        Liberals and conservatives have begun a new debate on policy toward Cuba, but both sides are missing a third alternative.

        The Wall Street Journal reported last week about the liberalization: ?U.S. exports to Cuba hit $1 million a day in January and American businessmen are flocking to Havana to sign deals for huge shipments of poultry and grain. Food sales, allowed under a law President Clinton signed in late 200, have skyrocketed in the past three years and could top $320 million this year. And an estimated 210,000 Americans traveled to Cuba legally last year, about half of them people of Cuban descent and the others a mix of students, academics and entrepreneurs.?

        The Journal also noted a prospective conservative response: ?Mr. Bush is almost certain to announce new steps (in mid-May) in his annual Cuban independence day speech. The options, according to U.S. officials, range from cutting back on permitted charter flights to reducing the remittances exiled Cubans can send home.? The Bush administration already has been ?bulking up enforcement of existing restrictions, including steps to collar and fine Americans who travel to Cuba illegally through third countries. ? In February, President Bush accused yachters who sail illegally to Havana of ?putting hard currency in the pocket of the regime.??

        Let?s step back for a minute.   We?ve had a four-decade-long embargo to avoid propping up the Castro regime with U.S. dollars.   For many of those years, the Soviet Union was the designated enabler, but after that union disintegrated, the Clinton administration began encouraging ?cultural exchanges? (mostly leftist pilgrimages and ?Study Spanish in Cuba? programs) and, in 2000, food sales (by Archer Daniels Midland and other U.S. corporations).

        Those sales are growing: During the second week of April, Cuban officials announced the signing of at least $80 million in new U.S. food contracts, and Fidel Castro himself met with visiting U.S. businessmen to thank them for being willing to deal. Shipments of food will allow the Castro regime to maintain its goal of having everyone dependent on government allocations. Besides, the best food goes either to government tyrants or to tourist hotels and restaurants frequented by Europeans, some of whom now recommend Cuba because desperate prostitutes offer relatively inexpensive services.

        Unsurprisingly, the new business arrangements sometimes include propaganda help, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on April 15: ?Joining the bandwagon of trade with Cuba, Philadelphia port and state agriculture officials are scheduled to fly to Havana next week to sign commitments for up to $10 million in exports to Cuba. ? Cuba, in return, will ask the Pennsylvania delegation to go back home and ?promote? full trade and normalized relations with Cuba -- a request that the delegation leader said he accepted.?

        That?s too much for U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez (D.-N.J.), who has proposed a tax on companies that lobby against the embargo in return for Cuban import rights: "For anybody to do it as a condition of a contract is, in my mind, fundamentally wrong." That should also be too much for the Bush administration, which could show in this realm as in Iraq that commercial interests don?t overrule the traditional American commitment to helping the oppressed gain freedom.

        U.S. political leaders should listen to the leaders of genuine faith-based groups in Cuba. I recently spent five days there listening to the views of religious leaders. Not one leader of any church group independent from the government called for an end to the embargo, for ?full trade and normalized relations with Cuba.? Not one asked for more food to be imported, or even more milk or medicine, if the imports would be under governmental control.

        The best way to help the oppressed of Cuba is neither a big liberal opening nor a big conservative squeeze (combined with a corporate hug).   The compassionate conservative way is to push for openings that will help the poor without bulwarking the Castro regime: The provision of material help should work alongside the future liberation of Cuba, not run counter to that hope. Individual Americans can circumvent the regime's controls by bring independent Cuban church groups up to 120 pounds of milk or medicine, along with books and laptop computers. In my next column, I?ll give specifics on how to do that.