May 8, 2003 | Commentary on Latin America
Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte and other like-minded celebrities can cozy up to Fidel Castro all they want. But we deserve better from members of Congress.
Just a few weeks ago, Castro locked up 75 dissidents and executed three Afro-Cubans accused of hijacking. Yet, even after that crackdown, some lawmakers still call for an end to sanctions against his regime. They claim American goods and tourists will hasten a democratic transition.
That would be a first. Commerce and tourism with the Soviet Union, for example, didn't bring down the Berlin Wall or produce perestroika. Trade with Moscow did change perceptions about Americans in a part of the world unfamiliar with us. But the Soviet dictatorship collapsed when its economy ran out of gas.
Similarly, lifting the current embargo on Cuba would have no effect on Castro. Like other tyrants in history, he lives in a dream world that he forces others to inhabit and sustain. He will insulate it from all threats and do whatever it takes to keep it alive.
Those threats include a vocal dissident movement and a populace that seems more cynical about the old dictator every day. Holding them in check requires money to keep his repressive state running. Tourism and credit from a market the size of the United States could help supply the financing his government needs.
Historically, Castro has liberalized only when forced to do so. He didn't begin tolerating self-employment, for example, until Soviet subsidies to the island dried up in 1991. And he released dozens of political prisoners in 1998 only after Pope John Paul II made a plea before an international audience.
In contrast, commerce, joint ventures and aid money from Canada and other donors have produced no change in behavior. It's easy to see why. Entrepreneurs hoping to sell Cuba something don't want to question Castro's human rights record or the regime's business practices. Castro holds all the cards. Those who won't play his game lose their place at the table.
Canadian and European tourists haven't helped democracy flourish on the island. But they have fueled the growth of Cuba's joint-venture resort industry that supplies the state with hard currency. Like others before them, American visitors would be unlikely to go out of their way to criticize a state where there is no freedom of speech, nor to risk a jail term helping dissidents.
The only valid argument in favor of lifting restrictions is whether the U.S. government is justified in so limiting the freedom of American citizens to travel to another nation. There is a legal basis for establishing such limits in the interest of national security, but the government must continually make a case for keeping them.
Right now, Cuba maintains a huge electronic espionage complex directed at U.S. shores, conducts research into biological warfare and sponsors international terrorist groups. So it would seem that current policy wins the national interest debate.
Further, the embargo gives the United States a small amount of leverage to nudge the Cuban state toward reform. Using the "step-by-step" approach to Cuba that President Bush announced in May 2002, Washington would agree to lift travel and business restrictions only when Castro permits ordinary Cubans to form their own independent labor unions, establish their own enterprises and freely travel abroad. If state finances are desperate enough, Castro might do so.
To bring about a peaceful democratic transition, the United States should spell out incentives that put the burden of political and economic reform on Cuba's government. At the same time, it should promote more targeted, purposeful encounters with Cuban professionals, academics and artists.
Washington should continue to allow Americans to send money to Cuban families and even to Cuban human rights activists to encourage less dependency on the regime for daily needs.
Finally, the United States and its democratic allies should urge the release of political prisoners in all conversations with Cuban officials. On April 29, Italy's lower house of parliament voted to suspend all aid to the Castro regime unless it halted summary executions and freed recently jailed dissidents. American diplomats should urge other European nations to follow Rome's lead.
Without sustained economic and diplomatic pressure, there will be no change on the island until Castro joins history's pantheon of megalomaniacal tyrants. Allowing American commerce and visitors pre-emptively wouldn't help. But by insisting that Castro or those who follow him take concrete steps to bring about this change, we can assure that, eventually, a democratic Cuba joins the growing club of free nations.
-Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire