Research: Commentary

Lifting Cuba Trade Embargo Is Good Business

The Baltimore Sun, August 23, 2015 | Article

By Michael Barnes

Last year Lech Walesa, the labor organizer who became President of Poland, said it's "quite amazing" that a country 90 miles from the United States could not overthrow the yoke of communism, while Poland, in the shadow of the USSR, managed such a feat. "The fact that the regime still persists there," Walesa said, "makes us suspect that maybe the United States wants to keep Cuba as a 'Jurassic Park of Communism' and that's why it's still there, because otherwise it's impossible that it is still there."

Although Mr. Walesa was no doubt joking, a good case can be made that U.S. policy toward Cuba, particularly the trade embargo that remains in place despite President Obama's agreement to normalize diplomatic relations, has been a key contributor to the longevity of the Castro brothers' dictatorship. U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba backfired, as the U.S. became estranged from our neighbors on this issue, and the Cuban government was able to blame all of the country's problems on Washington's policies.

Normalization was an important, historic step in the right direction, but more is needed, and a growing bi-partisan group in Congress is pushing for repeal of the trade embargo, which would open Cuba to U.S. trade and tourism. President Walesa has noted this would make it increasingly difficult for the totalitarian regime to keep the lid on pressures for liberalization.

Rep. Tom Emmer, Republican of Minnesota, and Rep. Kathy Castor, Democrat of Florida, recently introduced a bill in the House that would lift the embargo, and last month the Senate Appropriations Committee passed amendments that would allow American citizens to travel to Cuba freely and ease some commercial activity. This is happening as Americans increasingly support eliminating the embargo. A Pew Research Center poll released on July 21 showed that 72 percent of Americans, including 55 percent of conservative Republicans, favor ending the embargo. A recent poll by Univision found that 40 percent of Cuban-Americans said they would back a candidate who favors completely normalizing relations, while 26 percent said they would not.

The benefits of improved relations with Cuba, even in the short term, are manifold: increased cooperation on hurricane tracking, environmental protection, fighting drug trafficking, combating illegal migration. In the longer term, allowing U.S. companies to compete for rights to energy exploration in the Cuban waters of the Florida Straits, currently monopolized by Asian and European competitors, would benefit our economy and contribute to increased energy independence. A recent study predicts that U.S. exports to Cuba would be $4.3 billion, while Cuban exports to the U.S. would be $5.8 billion per year.

The embargo has been in place in various forms since 1962. As Congressman Emmer has said, "The embargo has benefited the Castro regime and hurt the Cuban people. We've given it plenty of time." President Obama agrees, as does a strong majority of the American people. So what's the hang up?

Ironically, the problem is Florida, or more specifically the Republican Party of Florida and its leaders. This is ironic because Florida stands to benefit more from an economic opening to Cuba than any other state. Almost weekly there are articles in the Florida press about new Cuba-focused ventures popping up, like charter flights and tour operators. The Sun Sentinel, South Florida Business Journal and Naples Daily News have written recently about the potential for increases in business for Florida companies. Perhaps the most obvious is the cruise industry, which has been lusting to get into Cuba — which they currently have to sail around — for decades.

Even now, with the embargo still in place, there is excitement in Florida about President Obama's actions. Yosbel Ibarra, co-chair of the Latin America and Iberian practice group at the Greenberg Traurig law firm, told the Miami Herald in May, "I think the firms in Miami are the best positioned nationally to take advantage of what's going on."

Meanwhile, Florida's leading Republicans, including Gov. Rick Scott, former Gov. Jeb Bush, and Sen. Marco Rubio, are all strongly opposed to normalization. Senator Rubio says he will block the confirmation of an ambassador to Cuba by the Senate. Both he and Governor Bush (along with fellow presidential candidates Ben Carson and Mike Huckabee who now also live in Florida), say that if they are elected president they will seek to roll back President Obama's agreement with Cuba.

I suspect that Lech Walesa would beg to differ.

Former Congressman Michael D. Barnes was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere; he is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington. His email is mbarnes@ciponline.org.

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