It’s time for a different approach with Cuba

by Robert Coon ([email protected]) 576 views 

Anyone who paid attention to the 2016 Presidential election, or follows the President on Twitter, knows he prides himself on his ability to make “good deals.” And it’s clear at this point, midway through his first year in office the President feels that he’s surrounded by bad ones.

While the Trump Administration may be short on legislative victories, they’ve been hard at work reviewing deals developed by previous administrations like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord, and NAFTA – pulling out of the first two and formally notifying Congress of their intent to renegotiate the third. And while an announcement has yet to be made, Trump is widely expected to unveil plans to weaken, or even rescind, changes instituted by the Obama Administration that began the process to thaw U.S. relations with Cuba that many hoped would eventually lead to a beneficial trade relationship.

Included in that group are Arkansas Senator John Boozman and Congressman Rick Crawford, who recently reintroduced legislation that would loosen some trade restrictions on U.S. agriculture sales to Cuba – specifically those dealing with financing and marketing. From an economic perspective, it’s widely known that Arkansas stands to gain significantly from access to the Cuban marketplace in the form of export opportunities for the state’s major agricultural products such as rice, beef, and pork.

Crawford recently announced his intention to add a new component to his legislation that would institute a 2% export fee on agricultural products to Cuba, with the generated funds being earmarked for reparation payments to former Cuban property owners.

Reparations to Cuban Americans to compensate them for confiscated property is a major sticking point among Congressional Cuba policy hawks, especially those in south Florida where many of that constituency resides. The 2% fee is aimed at generating political support from that contingent to gain forward motion on trade efforts. While the fee would be paid by U.S. businesses exporting products, it unknown at this point whether the Cuban government would respond negatively to it, or if they’d simply make an economic decision to buy the best products at the lowest price.

For his part, President Trump has hinted at his plans to roll back some of the Obama policies toward Cuba, stating that “the Cuban people deserve a government that peacefully upholds democratic values, economic liberties, religious freedoms, and human rights.” Of course, the President is right. For decades the Cuban regime has operated, what Human Rights Watch calls, a “highly effective machinery of repression”, punishing dissidents, restricting speech and assembly, and limiting religious expression among its people.

The United States’ longstanding policy towards Cuba, dating back to the 1960s, has been to punish the regime through economic sanctions. However, one need only look at the state of affairs in Cuba to know that this approach clearly hasn’t worked. The trade embargo hasn’t led to regime change in Cuba, nor has it resulted in improvements in human rights for the Cuban people. In fact, some would argue that the embargo has served to embolden and even prop up the Castro regime, giving them a visible scapegoat to point to for the country’s economic failures.

So why would we want to take a step backward and start down the failed path of isolation once again? The only thing standing in the way of a new approach by the U.S. to improve relations, create opportunities for American farmers and businesses, and enable better future for the Cuban people is our pride, and our unwillingness to admit that 50-plus years of economic sanctions just haven’t worked.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton ended the 19-year trade embargo against Vietnam that had been in place since the end of the Vietnam War in which more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers and an estimated 2 million Vietnamese citizens and soldiers lost their lives, and thousands more U.S. personnel went missing or were killed in action.

A year after ending the embargo, the U.S. established full diplomatic relations with Vietnam, seeking to heal the deep, painful wound that existed between the two countries. Today Vietnam is our 16th largest goods trading partner, with U.S. exports to Vietnam topping $10 billion in 2016. Vietnam’s economy has grown rapidly and has now reached the point where their companies are making foreign direct investment here in the United States, including a $15 million investment in a manufacturing facility in Morrilton, Ark., that is expected to employ 75 people. Most significantly, perhaps, is that the U.S. is leveraging this growing economic relationship to partner with Vietnam on humanitarian issues, disaster relief, and sustainability, and pressing the Vietnamese to make much needed strides in human and religious rights.

To foster real and long lasting humanitarian and political change in Cuba, we must first have a door that is open. As Gov. Asa Hutchinson stated during a trade mission to Cuba in 2015, “The fact is we’ve had an embargo for 55 years. I think it’s a reasonable step to say that let’s try something different.”

That something different is developing a direct relationship with the Cuban people, starting a dialogue around economic opportunity, and showing them just how great the American story is. Only then can we inspire change from within.
Editor’s note: Robert Coon is a partner with Impact Management Group, a government relations and communications firm. Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may not represent the opinion of the owners of Talk Business & Politics.