- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

Jimmy Carter's visit to Havana has reopened an old debate about whether the United States should end its travel and trade restrictions toward Cuba and its people.
Two years ago, I wrote: "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. Castro is still in power and the Cuban people remain poor, powerless and imprisoned."
Nothing has changed.
With the end of the Cold War and the dismantlement of the Evil Empire, the time has come to abandon a counterproductive policy that has accomplished nothing except to keep the Cuban people isolated in perpetual poverty and misery.
Mr. Carter went to Cuba on a five-day mission where he endorsed the "fundamental right" of the Cuban people to have the same democratic freedoms that we enjoy, including direct elections. And he said the United States should encourage and hasten this movement by ending its economic embargo a position he has long championed.
There are many things I disagree with Mr. Carter about, but on this one he is dead right.
Mr. Castro's 43-year-old experiment with socialism has been a dismal failure. The average monthly wage there is around 200 pesos, or about $8. Housing is poor. Jobs are few. Most of the necessities of life are rationed. Life is a struggle for most people.
Writing from Havana last week, The Washington Post's Kevin Sullivan reported on the life of Jorge Socrates, an unemployed bus driver who lost his job in the early 1990s: "He has no running water. A couple of times a week, someone fills his big plastic water can with a hose. His toilet is a green pail that sits in the same room where he cooks and eats. He keeps it half-full of soapy water to keep the smell down, and empties it down an open 6-inch waste pipe under the sink." His ancient Soviet-made refrigerator has been broken for years.
His ration book gives him a monthly allotment of 6 pounds of rice, a half pound of beans, one bar of soap, two tiny packets of coffee, three packs of cigarettes, a tube of toothpaste, a pound of salt, some spaghetti and a box of cookies.
"Most people in Cuba live this way; you get used to it," he says.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of dissidents, are pressing the Castro government for change. Mr. Carter told the Cuban people in a nationally broadcast address of a petition for a national referendum for reform, something few Cubans knew about.
The United States can help bring about change in Cuba. The fastest and most effective way to do that is to bombard Cuba with all the goods and services, and ideas that go with them, that we can get in there.
Trade will not only encourage entrepreneurship, business expansion and jobs, it will lead to increased economic demands to engage in free commerce beyond Cuba's borders that will in turn lead to increased demands for political reform.
Expanded travel, especially among those Americans who fled Cuba to escape Fidel Castro's repression, will show the Cubans how successful and affluent these expatriates have become in a free capitalist economy like the United States. There could be no more effective sales force to make our case to the next generation of Cubans who will take control once Mr. Castro dies or is ousted from power. The sooner we can lift this embargo, the sooner we can flood Cuban markets with the foods, appliances, clothes, entertainment, tools and other stuff that tell the story of America's inexhaustible abundance.
Unfortunately, there is one huge, stubborn obstacle that has prevented all this from happening: the Cuban refugees in Florida. American foreign policy toward Cuba has been held hostage to the electoral influence of this powerful political constituency.
Ronald Reagan ended Jimmy Carter's grain embargo against the Soviet Union, saying it did not undermine Moscow's communist rulers, it only punished the Russian people and American farmers. But Mr. Reagan was not about to anger the Cuban vote in a key state that helped elect him and he kept the embargo in place.
Similarly, President Bush, whose 2000 victory in Florida was a thin as a hanging chad, has no intention of making any major changes in our policy toward Cuba that might weaken his support in this pivotal state to which he owes his presidency.
But Mr. Carter has sparked a renewed movement in Congress to press for change. A day after his speech in Havana, 40 members of Congress proposed a nine-point plan that called for unrestricted travel and open trade with Cuba.
The Cuba Working Group, organized by Reps. William Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat, and Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, is asking the administration why it is imposing tougher trade restrictions on Cuba than it is against Iraq (from whom we buy a lot of oil) or China, with its record of human rights abuses. Indeed, the United States helped pass a U.N. resolution last week that called for virtually unrestricted trade with Iraq.
Trade and travel helped to encourage the democracy movements that brought down the communist governments of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and led China to adopt a free capitalist economy.
The time has come for the Bush administration to summon the political courage to adopt the same policy toward Cuba.


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