December 5, 2008 | Commentary on Democracy and Human Rights, Foreign Aid and Development, Trade

Abnormal Regimes Don't Merit Normal Relations

Hard-left groups in the United States want to "normalize" diplomatic relations with Venezuela and Cuba. They want Congress to lift the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba and they're urging President-elect Obama to meet one-on-one with his Venezuelan counterpart at next April's Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad. Neither idea is a good one.

Cuba and Venezuela are definitely not "normal" countries.

The U.S. closed its Embassy in Havana in 1961, when Fidel Castro first imposed his brutal, totalitarian, police state on Cuba. Virtually nothing has changed in the intervening 47 years. Raul Castro has assumed absolute power in Cuba from his ailing brother, but made no meaningful reforms.

Venezuelan Dictator-President Hugo Chavez is Fidel's protégé and heir apparent as the Western Hemisphere's troublemaker-in-chief. On September 11th this year, he thumbed his nose at America--again--throwing out the U.S. Ambassador to Caracas on transparently trumped up charges.

His treatment of Venezuelans is worse. Chavez has destroyed market-based democracy in Venezuela, appropriating its oil wealth to consolidate his authoritarian power. His mismanagement has led to corruption, runaway inflation and high crime rates at home. Meanwhile, he has exercised his oil-fueled clout regionally to undermine democracy in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua.

Economic freedom is but a distant dream in both countries. The 2008 Index of Economic Freedom, published by The Heritage Foundation and The Wall Street Journal, ranks Cuba at the bottom of the class--156th out of 157 countries. Venezuela is not much better - ranking 148th in terms of economic freedom.

Why should we seek "normal" relations with such dysfunctional countries? Many on the left cling to then-Senator Obama's famous assertion that he would meet Castro and Chavez "without pre-conditions." It's a campaign promise that should be broken.

Neither regime has earned the prestige that inevitably accompanies meeting with the leader of the free world. They must take many steps before America can restore conventional diplomatic relations with these two rogue states.

What steps?

Chavez must stop enabling Russia and Iran to meddle in the hemisphere, cease facilitating Colombian cartels' cocaine shipments through Venezuela, and stop aiding anti-democratic guerillas inside Colombia (America's best friend in the region) and in other Andean and Caribbean countries.

Raul Castro should release political prisoners, permit press freedom and the formation of legitimate opposition parties, and give Cubans free access to the Internet. Both countries should restore free markets and private property. Moreover, Obama should insist that Chavez let the U.S. Ambassador return to Venezuela to support the democratic opposition parties that won important victories there on November 23.

Cuba and Venezuela are following old socialist models doomed to failure. Rather than brood over them, the Obama Administration should concentrate on helping our friends in the hemisphere

Congress should immediately pass pending Free Trade Agreements with Colombia and Panama, creating a Pacific Rim Free Trade area, and repeal the 55 cent per gallon tax on Brazilian ethanol. Obama should continue the "Pathways to Prosperity" program to deepen ties with our hemispheric partners and open talks with Brazil to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement. These efforts will create American jobs and profits, not national security headaches.

The old adage says "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer." However, the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes are not just run-of-the-mill political enemies. Chavez and the Castro brothers are dangerous, sworn enemies of the very system that has given America unparalleled wealth and freedom.

President-elect Obama will soon swear an oath to "preserve, protect, and defend" that system. "Normalizing" relations with those who would destroy it is no way to uphold that oath.

James M. Roberts is Research Fellow for Economic Freedom and Growth in the Center for International Trade and Economics (CITE) at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James M. Roberts Research Fellow For Economic Freedom and Growth
Center for Trade and Economics (CTE)

First appeared part of a pro-con feature distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.