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COLUMN

Taking Back Our Cuba Policy

Michael J. Ring

If there is one lesson to be drawn from the saga of Elian Gonzalez, it is that current United States policy toward Cuba needs a good dose of sanity and reform. The United States needs to take back the Cuban policy agenda hijacked by the radical right in Miami’s exile community and take steps toward normalizing relations with our island neighbor.

Unfortunately, the events surrounding the travails of this one child parallel all too closely the history of U.S.-Cuban relations over the past four decades. A small band of anti-Castro extremists, motivated by their own virulence and spite more than any measure of good will or good judgment, block at every possible opportunity any reasonable compromise to thaw relations with Cuba.

Hence for nearly forty years the United States has enforced a strict embargo against Cuba. And, while we were opening markets and tearing down trade barriers across the globe in the 1990s, the federal government passed the Helms-Burton Act to further punish Cuba. The act codifies the embargo, meaning that congressional and not presidential action is needed to overturn the sanctions. Helms-Burton raises yet more barriers for those wishing to travel or do business in Cuba and even places obstacles to sending the most basic humanitarian aid to Cuba.

Supporters of Helms-Burton and the other sanctions argue that such extreme measures are the only way to topple Fidel Castro from power. Obviously, that hasn’t worked.

There is no compelling reason to continue this embargo on Cuba. Admittedly, Castro’s Cuba is not a bastion of human rights, but the United States has normalized trade relations with nations such as China which are far more reckless with regard to human rights. Cuba poses no security threat to the United States. The current harsh treatment of the nation has not hastened Castro’s demise -- he has seen nine American presidents during his tenure in office. Nor has it implanted the resolve for revolution among the Cuban people -- as seen from rallies in Havana, Cubans continue to rally around Castro, even if only as a protest of America’s reckless and unjust treatment of the Cuban people.

Many in Washington realize the current situation in untenable, and are taking action to allow at least a partial lifting of the embargo. The government’s International Trade Commission has been asked by Congress to study the embargo and its effect on the U.S. economy. The commission will doubtless find that the United States is losing a valuable market for its products by refusing to trade with Cuba.

Agricultural interests, devastated by low commodity prices and depression-like conditions in many of America’s rural areas, would especially benefit from dÉtente with Cuba. The island imported $700 million last year in food products alone, money that is badly needed by American farmers. In turn, the Cuban people would gain a new, bountiful food supply. Allowing agricultural exports to Cuba is win-win, both for American farmers and for Cuban consumers.

Several proposals have floated in recent years to allow the sale of food and medical supplies to Cuba. Unfortunately, the representatives from south Florida, leashed by the Miami exiles, have managed to torpedo any such proposals when they come up.

No good can ever come from denying the most basic humanitarian goods to any people. The embargo on food and medicine harms not Castro but the Cuban people. It is unconscionable that political opposition to such humanitarian assistance could exist, and shipments of food and medicine to Cuba should be allowed to resume.

But beyond allowing humanitarian relief, the United States should consider normalizing relations with Cuba altogether. The last forty years have shown us Castro is the winner in a game of hardball. Enforcing even more draconian sanctions is not the answer.

Instead, the United States should look to its improving relations with Vietnam as a model for what we should do with Cuba. Both are Communist nations which embarrassed us in the Cold War. But with that struggle over, we have ameliorated our relations with Hanoi. Working slowly, the United States has expanded trade initiatives and even normalized trade relations with our former enemy. While we are still concerned with Vietnam’s human rights situation, we have realized that Cold-War style isolation will not improve conditions in that country. The same principles should apply to our relationship with Cuba.

As America reflects on the events surrounding Elian Gonzalez, citizens should realize the boy is but a symbol of a more drastic problem -- the handcuffing of America’s Cuba policy by the Miami exile community. For the good of the United States -- and Cuba -- it is time to break those shackles.