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U.S. Policy Towards Cuba a Positive Baby Step

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Immediate Release Wednesday, June 28, 2000

Relaxation of U.S. Trade Policy Towards Cuba a Positive Baby Step--But Not Far Enough

* An early product of the "Elián" factor

* Permanent normalized trade relations with China and the lifting of trade embargo on North Korea indicative of growing congressional support for free trade

* Cuban proposal too limited despite far more benign history towards U.S.


* Congress must follow through on its new commitment--Nethercutt amendment is only the first step of the process

The June 27 agreement brokered between House Republican leaders to allow sales of food and medicine to Cuba was only the first step in the right direction for setting U.S. trade policy down a path of consistency and rethinking. It also represents one of the first fruits of the Elián factor, in recognition of the good will generated by the soon-to-be departing young Cuban cause celebré. Proposed by Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.), the amendment also includes provisions for relaxing trade restrictions against other "states of concern" (the new official line regarding former "rogue states"), including Libya, Iran, Sudan and North Korea. It still requires a codifying congressional vote, but with the support of ranking GOP members, who represented the main barrier to its passage, analysts say it should be enacted with ease.

However, the bill is far from fully lifting the embargo. It maintains existing prohibitions on other products and services, including travel regulations. In addition, it prohibits the financing of loans to Cuba from not only the government, but also the private sector, making it all but impossible for the impoverished island to take advantage of its newfound access to these critical U.S. exports. The other nations named in the bill are not burdened by this same restriction, and consequently will have greater access to both public and private funding. Although Congress deserves credit for overturning its increasingly static position on trade with Cuba, which until recently has been completely mired in obsolete Cold War rhetoric, its latest actions are more symbolic than real. In order to make U.S. trade policy truly consistent and germane, these seemingly arbitrary distinctions must be eliminated, or at the very least, clearly and rationally justified. Nevertheless, along with the resolution of the Elián affair, the latest U.S. action could represent the beginning of the end of no-movement in the area of U.S.-Cuban relations. While there are no home runs being hit here, clearly these latest developments reveal a series of bunt singles that can win a ballgame. Psyching up for Cuba The recent passage of several key pieces of legislation to moderate trade restrictions toward authoritarian regimes has drawn attention to the straining contradictions now underlying the U.S. embargo on Cuba. On May 25, faced with China's inevitable acceptance into the WTO, the House passed a bill to permanently normalize trade relations (PNTR) between the U.S. and a politically repressive Beijing. The decision was mirrored earlier this week, when an initiative sponsored by the Clinton administration formally lifted economic sanctions on a bellicose North Korea, with which the U.S. was involved in a war beginning in 1950 that cost more than 37,000 U.S. lives.

In conjunction with the State Department's elimination of the term "rogue state" from its official lexicography, such relaxations can be seen as important steps toward a more coherent trade policy. It seems that a new conception of the proper method for encouraging democratization is slowly solidifying in Congress, one that promotes the "carrot" of engagement rather than the "stick" of containment. Cuba, up until now, had been left out of the equation, leaving a glaring inconsistency like a thorn in the side of the ranking House Republicans. But these decisions set the stage for a similar easing of the four-decade long embargo on Cuba, which has utterly failed to weaken Castro's political grasp on the country or increase its international isolation.

Portents of cooperation Traditionally, Cuba was designated a threat to national security by the Department of Defense, because of the financial assistance it received from the Soviet Union. It is now clear, however, that Cuba (even if it once did) no longer represents any kind of threat against the U.S. or hemispheric democracy in general. The collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the subsequent withdrawal of its aid and trade eliminated the island not only as a military threat, but also as a formidable geo-political player. This prompted an unprecedented recession (in which Cuba's GDP fell by at least 35 percent) from which the island is still trying to recover. Growth has been slow, and by last year, the country's living standards still remained lower than those of 1989.

Faced with such sustained hardships, Castro in recent years has initiated several significant social and market reforms. He opened the island to tourism and foreign investment, while legalizing the dollar and allowing a number of business activites to privatize. Even more promising from a U.S. standpoint was his decision to open negotiations with Washington on the issue of paying reparations for property that was nationalized during the 1959 revolution. Although the economic situation has not notably improved, such restructuring can be seen as symbolic of a willingness on the island to consider further changes, as well as an understanding of the wisdom of improving U.S.-Cuba ties and cooperation.

Passing the Nethercutt amendment would reciprocate these feelings, but only to a certain extent. Lifting the embargo on food and medicine while barring the procurement of funds with which to purchase them is, pragmatically speaking, ineffectual. It is a humanitarian gesture in abstraction only, and especially in the context of allowing funding to the other countries named in the bill. It highlights the continuing inconsistencies, when it comes to Cuba, that remain entrenched in the House Republican leadership (backed, of course, by the powerful anti-Castro lobby in Miami). What makes Iran, an autocratic theocracy (still dominated by clericalism) that denies its citizens basic rights, a more legitimate candidate for Washington's financial support? Why does Sudan, whose military regime boasts one of the world's largest IMF debts and an abysmal human rights record, deserve this right any more than Cuba? The Nethercutt amendment can only be a successful baby step if it is a harbinger of things to come--otherwise, it remains a steak just out of reach of Cuba's economic collar.

By Dan Nemser and Zsombor Peter, COHA research associates

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-partisan and tax exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the floor of the Senate as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers."


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