Saturday, November 6, 2004

While the Washington debate on U.S. Cuba policy remains stuck on the issue of trade sanctions, the world has not stood still. At a recent meeting sponsored by the Czech government in Prague, a dozen former presidents and chiefs of governments, including Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, Jose Maria Aznar of Spain, and former leaders from Uruguay, Chile, Canada, Costa Rica, Bulgaria and Estonia, met not to discuss the U.S. embargo but to urge the international community to support the Cuban people’s aspirations for a transition to democracy.

The Czech meeting was followed by a similar meeting in Slovakia, where again prominent Europeans called on Fidel Castro to open his jails and allow civil society to grow. Earlier European illusions have been destroyed by Mr. Castro’s repression and unwillingness to reform. Just last week, three members of Parliament (two Dutch and one Spaniard) were prevented from entering the country at Havana airport because they intended to meet with Cuban human rights activists.

Much has also changed about the U.S. trade embargo. Those who still talk about “lifting the embargo” routinely ignore that American companies already sell foodstuffs and medicine to Cuba. The issue is not about selling, but getting paid.

American companies sell to Cuba on a cash basis; the U.S. government does not provide credit guarantees. So there are no American banks standing in the long queue of Mr. Castro’s creditors in the Paris Club.

The Paris Club is comprised of foreign governments and banks that have extended credit to Mr. Castro, who hasn’t made a payment on principal or interest since 1986 to many of them. Havana owes Mexico $380 million. In 2002, that debt was renegotiated. But last March, Mr. Castro stopped payments when he became angry with Mexican President Vicente Fox. BancoMex has since closed its offices in Havana.

Even South Africa, a longtime ally due to Mr. Castro’s support for Nelson Mandela during Mr. Mandela’s many years of imprisonment, suspended its export insurance and credits to Cuba because of nonpayment.

We all know what happens when American banks can’t collect on outstanding loans: One way or another, taxpayers shoulder the burden. Remember the U.S. savings and loan debacle? If the U.S. unilaterally lifts what remains of its Cuba trade sanctions, as some are pushing for, American taxpayers will be handed the bill and the Cuban people will see no benefit.

“Commercial engagement” with Cuba comes with an extra political price. When Mr. Castro buys from U.S. companies, he expects them to become apologists and lobbyists for his government. As USA Today reports, “Castro’s regime uses its checkbook as leverage so that U.S. political and commercial groups sign promises to work for changes in the laws that restrict travel and trade with Cuba.” Sysco, which was ready to export $500,000 in foodstuffs, backed out when told it had to “take legal action to promote changes in trade with Cuba.”

If the insolvency of Cuba’s government is not reason enough for caution, how about the fact Cuba remains in the State Department list of rogue-nation terrorism sponsors? Cuba’s espionage against the United States, in which a high-ranking U.S. intelligence analyst pleaded guilty to spying for Mr. Castro for many years? The hospitality Cuba has granted fleeing felons — including accused killers of American police officers? Commerce is not the only factor to weigh in determining U.S. relations with other countries.

With the Soviet Union’s collapse and the end of Soviet subsidies, Mr. Castro turned to tourism for financing his repressive government. Should Americans now join in exploiting Cuban workers?

“Private enterprise” doesn’t exist in Cuba. The government owns all businesses, and Cuba’s military controls tourism. Unless they work at a hotel, nightclub or restaurant, Cubans are routinely banned from businesses catering to tourists. Some call it “tourist apartheid.” Paychecks are issued by Cuba’s government; foreign investors deal only with the Cuban government and become complicit exploiters of Cubans who get only $15 to $20 a month.

That is not enough to live on, so prostitution thrives. Anyone who promotes or talks about an “independent labor union” or “collective bargaining” is fired, arrested and imprisoned.

Some argue American tourists in Cuba would promote democracy and freedom. They are wrong; they misunderstand the lessons of Eastern Europe.

It was not American tourists enjoying Soviet ballets in Leningrad that brought down communism. Rather, it was Western efforts such as Radio Free Europe that broke the Soviet news monopoly. And Western leaders, such as President Ronald Reagan, kept the pressure on while maintaining America’s commitment to freedom and human decency.

The American people have a role in helping Cubans and others achieve freedom. It is a solidarity that should not now be replaced by complicit exploitation. Cubans need help maintaining pressure for reform on one of the world’s last communist tyrants.

There will be plenty of time to trade with a free Cuba.

Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, an independent human rights organization. He has testified before congressional committees and the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland.

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