By Paul Greenberg
The latest senator to call for an end to the American embargo on trade with Cuba is Arkansas' Blanche Lincoln. Faced with a hard choice between anti-communist principle and farm-state profit, she has chosen the profitable course. But she calls it principle. It's a neat trick, and here's how she brought it off at an international trade conference in Cancun, Mexico:
In one and the same speech, the junior senator from Arkansas (a) denounced Fidel Castro's always denounceable regime and (b) came out for trading with the enemy of democracy. That way, she can pay eloquent lip service to freedom while pleasing those back home with an interest in revving up trade with Cuba.
How does the senator reconcile her contradictory positions? Ending the embargo, she explains, would bring democratic reform to that prison isle. Sure it would. The way our exports of oil and scrap iron to the Japanese Empire in the '30s turned it into a peaceful democracy. The way continuing Lend-Lease to Russia after the Second World War would have eased Josef Stalin's grip on power.
Blanche Lincoln has to know better. It was American sanctions, not American investment, that helped end apartheid in South Africa. Nor has our trade with Communist China, especially the export of missile technology during the Clinton years, lessened the danger to Taiwan, the last redoubt of free China.
But here is the junior senator from Arkansas pretending that doing business with Fidel Castro's brutal dictatorship will soften it up. To believe that, you have to overlook the primary aim of every totalitarian regime: to privilege those who run it. Cuba's ruling elite would like to revive the island's trade with this country because, you can be sure, they'll get their share of the profits. The crumbs they'll throw to the masses might allay popular discontent a while longer.
Communism is less a political or economic philosophy than a criminal conspiracy. After almost a half-century of Fidelism, Cuba's people may be destitute, but who ever saw a starving commissar?
When visiting capitalists and well-behaved pols like Blanche Lincoln come to Havana, the banquets with Fidel are lavish. But while they're being lectured for hours by a bearded megalomaniac, a few blocks away prostitutes seek out tourists, and desperate families plot their escape in some leaky tub.
The most common product of all communist countries, whatever their locale, is refugees. Unable to vote in free elections, people vote with their feet.
Cuba's people, at least those without connections, are already excluded from the fancy resorts reserved for foreign tourists, just as the Soviet Union used to give foreigners special, segregated treatment. To quote a report from Human Rights Watch, "In a phenomenon popularly known as 'tourist apartheid,' the best hotels, resorts, beaches and restaurants are off-limits to most Cubans, as are certain health institutions."
Cubans have been divided into two nations - the few with dollars and the many without. No wonder the great ambition of so many Cubans is to get out of Cuba - if they can. Whatever social ills Fidel Castro may see in capitalism, no capitalist society ever had to build a wall to keep its people in.
The Cuban regime already takes almost all the pay earned by workers for foreign companies, and since it allows no independent labor unions, there's no one to protest such thievery. What makes Mrs. Lincoln think Cuba's little kleptocracy will not appropriate the lion's share of American trade and investment, too?
By all means, end the embargo on Cuba - as soon as Fidel ends his repression. Resume trade with that once vibrant island as soon as its caudillo allows free elections, restores civil liberties, frees his political prisoners and respects private property. And not a moment before.
But the senator from Arkansas, the rice bowl of the United States, knows that relaxing the embargo could mean an estimated $167 million in exports to Fidel's fiefdom from just this one state. That kind of money is too tempting to pass up, especially if we can pretend that trading with Communist Cuba will somehow free its people - instead of tightening their chains.
Like every other communist regime, Cuba looks to the capitalism it denounces to save it. And there will always be those capitalists eager to oblige, especially if the cost is to be paid by the American taxpayer, For how is a broke Cuba going to buy $167 million worth of American products every year? With a subsidy from the American government, of course. That'll be the next step.
Cuba's economy is in tatters after all these years of the Maximum Leader's guiding genius, and there's no longer a Soviet Union to send it $5 billion a year in subsidies. Without outside trade and aid, Cuba's police state could grow as shaky as its aging dictator. At this pivotal moment, why should the Land of the Free come to the rescue of Fidel's sordid little tyranny? Let it fall of its own rot.
Blanche Lincoln isn't the first American eager to do business with one ruthless dictatorship or another, but by claiming that such trade would strengthen freedom, she's definitely one of the more imaginative.