- The Washington Times - Monday, April 25, 2005

For 45 years, the United States has had one strategy for fighting the Castro government: isolating Cuba, politically and economically.

As times have changed, our policy has remained frozen in the amber of its own ineffectiveness. The Soviet Union disappeared. Globalization happened. One by one, nations from around the world have stepped into the void our policy created; knitting trade ties, gaining access to Cuba’s natural resources, creating jobs for their own people, and establishing political ties that favor their interests.

Written out of the script, without a significant economic presence, without influence on the Cuban government; and without even the fundamental right to travel to Cuba, the United States has isolated itself and neutered its influence on the island.

Look at the nations now welcomed in Cuba.

China is there. The United States worked for 30 years to get the Soviet Union out of Cuba, and now the Chinese are nestling in. China’s trade with Cuba will top $400 million next year, and the two countries recently inked agreements representing at least $1.5 billion in new investments in Cuba’s economy over the coming years.

In return, China — one of our most formidable competitors — will benefit from access to Cuba’s natural resources, especially nickel. Considered a “strategic mineral” by the Pentagon, nickel is used in armor plating, gun forgings, shells and bullets. Nickel ore is scarce in China; a planned nickel production plant will be a boon to Chinese manufacturing, and a loss for American fabricators and metalworkers.

Venezuela is there. Our policy of isolation has pushed an already close relationship between Cuba’s government and Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez even closer. Venezuela is selling oil to Cuba at below-market prices and, in return, Cuba donates the services of thousands of doctors to Venezuela. All the while, Messrs. Castro and Chavez speculate openly about Venezuela cutting off oil sales to the U.S — a potentially damaging blow to our economy.

Canada is there. With the price of U.S. gasoline skyrocketing, it’s two Canadian companies, Pebercan and Sherritt International, that have struck oil off Cuba’s coast, and are now exploring these fields’ potential for development — and it’s Canadian consumers, workers and shareholders who will benefit once pumping begins.

The nations of the European Union are also there. Our isolation is perhaps most painfully apparent in the effort to improve Cuba’s political climate. In the wake of a dissident crackdown in June 2003, the EU chilled relations with Cuba. Unlike the United States, however, Europe changed its approach when its strategy stalled. With Spain leading the way, the EU placed itself in the center of a conversation — one that includes both the Cuban government and the opposition — a conversation that may bring greater openness in Cuba, and one that has already won the release of seven imprisoned dissidents.

Europe’s influence is magnified by a travel crackdown imposed by the United States. These restrictions are putting an end to cultural and professional exchanges. Travel restrictions also slow job creation in the United States; they cost U.S. airlines $400 million each year and prevent Cuban Americans from caring for their often-impoverished families.

What a historical irony, and what a short-sighted act, for U.S. policy to cut off the possibility of dialogue with the Cuban people. From baseball to music, Cuba and the United States have been very close, and up until recent history our nations have enjoyed deep economic and cultural ties.

We should be building even closer bonds; instead, it is far-off European and Asian nations enjoying trade and travel with Cuba, and spreading their influence in ways that will be sustained in Cuba for decades to come.

In attempting to isolate Cuba, we in the United States have fenced ourselves off from reality, harming our economy, deepening Cuba’s economic malaise and circumscribing our part in the dialogue over Cuba’s future. Washington needs to tear down this fence and start anew.

Tomorrow Americans from across the country will gather in Washington. Republicans and Democrats, progressives and libertarians, farmers and academics, moderate Cuban-Americans and unabashed people of faith will urge our leaders to change course and engage with Cuba. If Congress and the president listen, we can finally have a policy that honors the humanity of the Cuban people, the health of the U.S. economy and the broad national interest of the United States.

This change is long-overdue.

Sarah Stephens, director of the Freedom to Travel Campaign, is helping to organize April 27 as Cuba Action Day.

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