Cuban embargo imbroglio.
By Frank Calzon*
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
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
"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
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
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Cortesy of Paul Echaniz