The Multinational Monitor



Time to Trade

On August 28, 1960, the United States announced that it was imposing an economic trade embargo against Cuba. One year earlier Fidel Castro and the Rebel Army had seized power, overthrowing the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and six weeks later the Cuban government announced the nationalization of all large commercial and industrial enterprises in the country. Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy established and maintained the embargo with the specific intent of bringing discomfort and unrest to the Cuban populace and counter-revolution to Cuba. In 30 years, little has changed.

The United States has continued a flawed and inconsistent policy. Elsewhere in Latin America, the U.S. government supports dictators whose records on human rights and political freedom are filled with abuses equivalent to and many times surpassing those that the United States criticizes in Castro's government. Singling out Castro as an abusive tyrant, while supporting the government in El Salvador which is noted for its associations with death squads that have slaughtered thousands, the "disappearances" of critics and for unattended poverty, is hypocritical.

As many critics, liberal and conservative alike, have pointed out, Cuba is not the revolutionary paradise that many leftists imagined it might be when Castro first took office. Cuba is still a poor country with serious foreign debt problems. In 1987, the country's external debt in hard currency was $5.65 billion. Fifteen percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product goes to military and security expenditures. Amnesty International is still finding documented human rights abuses by the Cuban government.

Still post-revolutionary Cuba has achieved a number of impressive accomplishments. According to authors Medea Benjamin, Joseph Collins and Michael Scott, writing in 1986, "hunger has been eliminated in Cuba with very few exceptions." Almost all Cubans have nutritionally sound diets, they add. "Cubans may not have the kind of foods they want or even as much as they want, but few suffer from lack of calories or protein."

Ninety-six percent of the Cuban populace is literate. There are 2.06 doctors for every 1,000 Cubans. The U.N.'s 1989 State of the World's Children report notes that 98.1 percent of the children born in Cuba survive to the age of five; this is higher than any other developing country in the Americas. And Castro has been able to maintain these standards while the United States has been putting severe economic, political and military pressures on his government and on the security of his country.

U.S. policy toward Cuba has failed on its own terms too. The Cuban economy may not be thriving, but it has not collapsed under the weight of the U.S. trade embargo. Today, Havana is thought to be a fertile area for investment. Western European countries are already reaping the profits from investment in Cuba. U.S. businesses are losing out and many of them are openly calling for a change in diplomatic policy.

Castro also wants to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States. His government has made several overtures to the United States in recent years. Cuban representatives have declared that their country is willing to negotiate resolutions to the remaining points of controversy. These attempts might be motivated by Castro's knowledge that he cannot lead Cuba forever and by a fear that his successor will not maintain a strong negotiating position against the intimidating strength and the very real threat that the United States poses to Cuba. His successor may not be able to balance superpower relations as successfully as Castro has done.

For the U.S. government, conflicting influences are at play. The conservative Bush administration feels a need to maintain its hard-line stand against the communist threat in the Western Hemisphere. Bush, however, must withstand the pressure of U.S. businesses wanting to trade with and profit from Cuba. And he must also confront the fact that his fear of losing face is detracting from his ability to wield power in the region. As trading partners of Cuba, Western European countries and Canada will have far more influence over Cuba than the United States, which has exhausted its economic leverage with a single, unsuccessful program.

The decision to embargo Cuba was made at the height of Cold War tensions. As those tensions subside and as the lost financial opportunity becomes clearer, it seems increasingly likely that the Bush administration will begin negotiations with Castro in order to give U.S. businesses access to the Cuban market and U.S. diplomatic initiatives in the region a chance. It is a move whose time has come.

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