Why Congress must rethink sanctions on Cuba
By Reihan Salam APRIL 11, 2014
Alan Gross, the 64-year-old American who has been imprisoned by Cuban
authorities since 2009, is an unremarkable man on the surface. He could
be a friend or colleague, or an uncle you’ve been meaning to call.
Yet what distinguishes Gross from most of the rest of us, myself
included, is his courage. As a sub-contractor for the U.S. Agency for
International Development, Gross traveled to Cuba to help private
citizens gain access to the Internet, and thus to news and information
not managed or manufactured by the Cuban government. Gross likely knew
that his work was dangerous, but he may have underestimated the risk he
was taking. In a heartbreaking letter to President Obama, Gross
recounted the many ways his wife and daughters have suffered in his
absence. He beseeched the president to intervene in his case.
And so Gross, a husband and father from Maryland who seems to want
nothing more than to be reunited with his family, has reignited the
decades-long debate over how the United States should deal with Cuba, a
rogue state that continues to adhere to Marxist-Leninist one-party rule
long after the collapse of its Soviet patron.
While some lawmakers, including Cuban-American Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL)
and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), have urged the Obama administration not to
negotiate — but instead to demand Gross’s unconditional release — Sen.
Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has led the chorus of those calling for the
president to play ball with Cuba’s rulers, or rather to “not shrink from
the obligation to negotiate for his freedom.”
What the Cuban government wants most is a relaxation of the economic
sanctions the U.S. government first imposed on the island nation in
1963, when it became clear that Fidel Castro intended to align his new
regime with the Soviet Union and to have Cuba serve as a staging ground
for armed insurgencies throughout Latin America.
In the decades since then, the sanctions regime has evolved in various
ways. There are now a number of licensed exemptions that allow Americans
to provide humanitarian assistance in Cuba, or that allow academic
researchers to travel there. Cuban households receive $2.6 billion in
remittances from Cuban immigrants and people of Cuban origin living
abroad, most of which comes from the United States. And as Emily Parker
observed earlier this week, for example, the Obama administration made
it somewhat easier for U.S. telecom providers to do business with Cuba
in 2009, in an effort to encourage the free flow of information in and
out of the country.
So should the U.S. government ease economic sanctions even further? The
plight of Alan Gross represents an opportunity to rethink the sanctions
regime. One widely held view is that U.S. sanctions actually serve to
entrench the current Cuban government, as they allow Cuba’s rulers to
tightly control the flow of resources in and out of the island, and also
to blame the United States for the poverty and deprivation that plagues
Cuban society. The problem with this line of thinking, as Mauricio
Claver-Carone, director of Cuba Democracy Advocates and a proponent of
sanctions, notes, is that foreign trade and investment in Cuba is the
exclusive domain of the state.
Whereas the Chinese government offers wide latitude to private
enterprises, both domestic and foreign-owned, to operate on Chinese
soil, the Cuban government severely limits the scope for private
economic activity. This is one reason why China “feels” like a freer
society than Cuba, despite the fact that the Chinese government
maintains a large and expensive repressive apparatus. To grow the
Chinese economy, China’s rulers have had little choice but to relax
their grip on investment and entrepreneurship.
In recent years, the Cuban government has allowed for the emergence of a
small-scale “self-employment” sector. Yet this sector shouldn’t be
mistaken for private enterprise, as self-employed individuals are barred
from building their own independent businesses. If sanctions are lifted
without conditions, it seems more likely than not that the Cuban
government would insist that all U.S. trade and investment be channeled
through state-owned entities. Given Cuba’s parlous fiscal state, this
would be an enormous boon.
Rather than lift sanctions unilaterally, the U.S. ought to consider
modifying the approach it has taken since passage of the Helms-Burton
Act of 1996. Under Helms-Burton, the U.S. is prepared to lift sanctions
if and when Cuba releases political prisoners and allows for the
inspection of its prison facilities, legalizes political activity and
opposition parties, and abolishes its secret police. Essentially, the
law insists on immediate regime change, and it is easy to see why Cuba’s
rulers find its conditions unacceptable.
Congress ought to consider a new approach: the U.S. will relax sanctions
if Cuba allows its citizens greater scope to build their own private
businesses, which will have the right to engage in foreign trade,
receive foreign investment, and employ workers. The Cuban government
will, of course, be allowed to tax and regulate these private
businesses, but it will have to offer its citizens at least some
economic liberty, so that an influx of U.S. trade and investment won’t
simply bolster the Cuban state and Cuba’s repressive apparatus.
Yes, Cuba’s propagandists will characterize this deal as yet another
example of Yankee meddling. It is also true, however, that this approach
would offer Cuba’s rulers a meaningful alternative to Regime Change Now
while also allaying the concerns of Americans who fear that easing
sanctions might strengthen the current regime. And by loosening the
economic stranglehold of Cuba’s state-owned monopolies, we can give
Cubans the breathing room they need to start building a free society.
Source: Why Congress must rethink sanctions on Cuba | Reihan Salam –