Freedom First or Business First?
By MAURICIO CLAVER-CARONE
Published: July 1, 2011
Current U.S. policy toward Cuba conditions economic engagement with the
Castro regime on its respect for basic human rights and enactment of
genuine political and economic reform.
This policy can be described as "freedom first." It is often labeled a
failure by American foreign-policy elites and some in the media because
the Castro regime, a brutal and bankrupt totalitarian dictatorship led
by a handful of octogenarians, refuses to acknowledge human rights or to
accommodate political or economic reforms.
Yet few in the Western Hemisphere — even left-leaning governments — seek
to emulate Cuba's political or economic model. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez
is, perhaps, an exception, but even he is hamstrung by the Venezuelan
people's absolute rejection of Cuba's totalitarianism.
Conversely, the United States' "business first" policy of economic
engagement toward China's dictatorship has helped turn what was, in the
1970s and 1980s, a fragile, disoriented and struggling regime
desperately seeking a way out of its failed communal agrarian economy,
into one of history's most repressive but lucrative dictatorships.
China is now the pièce de résistance in the eyes of the world's tyrants.
For the Chinese people, however, things could have turned out better.
Following Mao Zedong's death in 1976, a wave of mostly political — not
economic — reform movements spread across China. The Democracy Wall
Movement, which began with people spontaneously posting signs demanding
political reform and democracy on a Beijing wall, spread quickly.
Hundreds of thousands of students and activists took up the cause and
courageously pushed the limits of official tolerance with demands for
free expression, democratic processes and open criticisms of the
Communist Party, a movement that culminated on June 4, 1989, in the
Tiananmen Square massacre.
The tepid response from the international community then allowed
aspirations for democratic reform to be supplanted by the economic
aspirations and priorities of multinational corporations and their
"official" Chinese business partners.
Today, the lure of China's $6 trillion economy overshadows that
country's dismal human-rights record and has served to consolidate the
ironclad, one-party rule.
Now, when the United States wants to effectively defend the basic human
rights of the Chinese people, it must first and foremost calculate and
consider the potential impact on interest rates in the United States,
lest China's tyrants feel slighted and start selling off U.S. Treasury
As it economically holds the United States hostage, the Chinese regime,
thus, seems to have it all: a monopoly on power, subservient economic
elites, overflowing bank accounts and sovereign funds, and an unchecked
right of repression.
None of this could have happened without the complicity of the United
States, which generously opened its markets to China's near slave-like
labor, helping create a manufacturing powerhouse. The United States is
now competing economically with a monster it created and facing blowback
when dealing with its national security and foreign policy priorities
from Pakistan to Iran.
Worse, the new and growing wealth of China's ruling class has spurred
neither democratic reform nor greater respect for human rights. Over the
last month, China's regime has undertaken one of the most brutal and
widespread crackdowns on dissent since Tiananmen Square. The crackdown
has even led the Economist magazine to begrudgingly conclude: "In the
short term at least, these troubling developments undermine the
comforting idea that economic openness necessarily leads to the
"Comforting idea"? Comforting to whom? The idea that economic engagement
leads to political reform is often and simply proffered to assuage
public concerns and the sometimes guilty consciences of those who know
they'll profit from transacting business with brutal tyrants. It's not
been comforting for the countless Chinese democracy advocates imprisoned
and tortured, or to the families of those executed over the years.
So which of the two repressed nations — Cuba or China — is the most
likely to emerge a democracy? Or become the first to demonstrate respect
for basic human rights?
Will it be the economically powerful Chinese regime, with its dissident
movement now desperately struggling to overcome the gargantuan charm of
its repressor's wealth thanks to the United States' focus on "business
first"? Or will it be the bankrupt, octogenarian Cuban regime of the
Castro brothers, with its growing dissident movement led by youthful
figures who have managed to garner and hold the world's attention —
thanks to the leverage provided by the United States' focus on "freedom
Time will identify the real policy failure. In the meantime, two wrongs
won't make things right for any of those oppressed by dictators around
Mauricio Claver-Carone is a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in
Washington and formerly served as an attorney with the U.S. Department
of the Treasury.