- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2000

For nearly 40 years, the United States has maintained an economic embargo against Cuba in order to bring down Fidel Castro's evil regime, with little if any strategic result. Mr. Castro is still in power, and the Cuban people remain poor, powerless and imprisoned.

There is growing opinion in Congress that the time has come to try a new approach: to lift the trade sanctions and launch a capitalist invasion of Cuba's state-run economy and its Marxist culture. The resulting products and ideas of free enterprise, foreign investment, business opportunities, personal contacts and tourism would go under, over and around the Castro regime directly to the people.

When Ronald Reagan became president, one of his first actions was to end the U.S. grain embargo against the Soviet Union, an embargo that Jimmy Carter had imposed after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Mr. Reagan believed that the trade sanctions, rather than undermining the communists, only punished the Russian people and American farmers.

Mr. Reagan knew that trade was not an effective weapon against the Soviet Union. Instead, he responded to the Soviet military threat by making the United States the supreme military power on the planet and by arming Afghan freedom fighters. At the same time, he wanted to make the Soviets more dependent upon American grain and encouraged business contacts with the Russian people.

But the Cuban-American community was, and remains, fiercely opposed to trade with communist Cuba, and Mr. Reagan was unwilling to change that policy. Besides, there were valid reasons to maintain the embargo at a time when the Soviet Union considered Cuba a satellite country a convenient spot from which to mount its insurgencies throughout Latin America.

But a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Evil Empire, those reasons no longer apply. Instead, there is now a growing cry among conservatives to end the sanctions and begin bombarding Cuba and its people with all the goods and business deals that we can.

Robert Bartley's editorial page at the Wall Street Journal was one of the first voices to urge this course, and other groups have begun to take up the gauntlet as well.

One of them is the Lexington Institute, an up-and-coming conservative, free-market think tank that believes it is time to change our economic policy toward Cuba. In a recent analysis, Lexington Institute Vice President Philip Peters, a former Reagan administration official, made a cogent and persuasive case for trade.

What would trade with Cuba accomplish?

"First, it could help the Cuban people. Allowing sales of food and agricultural supplies would reduce Cuba's food import costs. It would increase food supplies by helping the private farmers whose products fill Cuba's farmers' markets," Mr. Peters writes.

"If Americans were permitted to invest in this sector, they could join businesses from Canada, Israel and Europe that pay the best wages in Cuba and expose Cubans to capitalism in the hotels, resorts, mines and factories they operate," he says.

"Second, it could extend American influence. Allowing Americans to travel freely to Cuba would create countless contacts between people, schools, churches and families," he adds. Thousands of Americans walking around the streets of Havana would have a huge impact there.

Cuban-Americans may not like the idea of ending the embargo, but many dissidents in Cuba argue that it would help strengthen the Cuban people and undermine support for Mr. Castro.

"The dissidents consider that the lifting of these restrictions by the United States would benefit the Cuban people, who are tired of the [Cuban] government justification that the trade embargo is to blame for [Cuba's] political and economic crisis," writes Carlos Recio Martinez, an independent Cuban journalist.

There is a growing tourism and restaurant sector in Cuba, and a budding entrepreneurial spirit that we should encourage. One recent report places the number of private enterprises at 150,000.

"While still marked by centralism and state direction, Cuba's economic model is tending to return to a hybrid system that is opening more and more to capitalism," writes independent Cuban journalist Jesus Zuniga.

"Marxist philosophy and economic policy no longer figure in the majority of educational curricula; they are giving way to the classics of market economics, financial law and business administration," he writes.

Beginning in September, the Cuban government will allow Cuban business people in groups of about 25 to come to the United States to see and learn how capitalism works in this country. Arranged by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, these groups will include restaurant owners and farmers, and will eventually expand to include people from other economic sectors. Can McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Archer Daniels Midland be far behind?

Though opposed by Republican leaders, legislation is slowly gaining strength in Congress to permit the sale of food and medicine to Havana. Cuba buys nearly $1 billion a year in food from abroad, and there is growing support in the House and Senate to open up the trade gates a little.

This bill should be passed as a first step to opening up full trade with Cuba. Instead of focusing on Fidel Castro, a Marxist has-been who will end up on the ash heap of history, our strategic economic focus should be on the next generation of ambitious, entrepreneurial Cubans who will one day become the leaders of a free, democratic Cuba.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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