When President Obama took the oath of office two months ago, he became the 44th president of the United States and the 11th president who has had to confront Fidel Castro since he assumed power in Cuba in 1959.
It’s hard to believe that 25 percent of our commanders-in-chief have had to deal with this dictatorial regime in our own backyard, about 90 miles south of Florida.
It’s even harder to believe that anyone could still rate the trade embargo on Cuba a success. John F. Kennedy established it in 1962, with the best of intentions during the Cold War and the aim of forcing Castro from power. If it had worked at any point over the last 47 years, of course, Castro would be something other than a grizzled old tyrant--and Obama wouldn’t have to spend a moment of his time worrying what to do about him.
Thankfully, the White House appears ready to shift U.S. policy in the right direction. Obama should continue on this constructive course with Cuba and expand it to other parts of Latin America as well.
The recent budget bill eases prohibitions on travel to Castro’s island. Previously, Americans with immediate family in Cuba were allowed to visit only once every three years. Now they’ll be allowed to make annual trips.
Some trade restrictions will be lifted soon as well. Americans who want to sell agricultural products and medical goods will be able to obtain special licenses allowing them to go to Cuba on business.
These are positive developments. They do not go nearly far enough--trade with Cuba will remain drastically limited, to the detriment of both U.S. exporters and impoverished Cubans. Yet it makes sense to walk before we run, or at least to take a halting baby step before trying to surge forward.
We should hope that closer ties lie ahead. With the world economy in peril, it simply makes no sense to deny ourselves a market of 11 million people, especially one that is so close to home. Yet the embargo has walled off this economic opportunity. Meanwhile, farmers and manufacturers in Canada, Europe, and Asia trade with Cuba everyday.
Lawmakers who complain about American companies that “send jobs overseas” should reconsider our approach to Cuba. By refusing to trade with this near neighbor, we’re essentially outsourcing U.S. export jobs to foreign countries.
American farmers would welcome the chance for greater sales in Cuba, which is hungry for our corn, soybeans, wheat, chicken, and milk. One of my remembrances on my one-time visit to Cuba, 10 years ago, is no milk unless you had small children. Then you could get a little. Permitting additional trade would serve as a mini-economic stimulus package for rural America.
Other sectors also would benefit. The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council--a kind of Chamber of Commerce group for improved trade ties--boasts dues-paying members from the automotive, construction, health care, hotel, and pharmaceutical industries.
Even if Congress and the Obama administration haven’t gone far enough, they deserve praise for reorienting Washington toward engagement with Havana. There’s a solid foundation to build upon here, and perhaps the president will announce another small step next month, when he meets with Latin American leaders at a summit in Trinidad.
The irony is that even though we’re headed in the right direction on Cuba, we’re still going the wrong way with Colombia. It’s currently our country’s strongest ally in Latin America--and yet Washington continues to delay approval of a modest trade agreement that will help both Americans and Colombians.
Latin America is home to a number of stridently anti-American governments, from Bolivia to Venezuela. On Sunday, El Salvadorans elected a new president from a left-wing party of former Communist guerillas. Cuba, of course, has been a thorn in our side for almost half a century.
Obama has promised greater engagement with America’s adversaries, and the new Cuba policy is a perfect example of an attempt to improve relations with an old foe. We should all hope it works.
At the same time, the president should push for greater engagement with America’s friends--and call on Congress, at long last, to approve the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. www.truthabouttrade.org