Remarks by Mauricio Claver-Carone of the Cuba Democracy PAC
"What's Next on Cuba Trade Policy?"
Washington International Trade Association (WITA)
Thank you so much for your kind invitation. I must admit that I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here today with the composition of the panel; the interest of the registrants; and even the time for preparation, but I am truly honored to be here with all of you.
Obviously, Cuba and U.S. policy towards Cuba -- including the issue of trade -- are topics of great passion, and seemingly endless comment, reflection and debate -- or at least for those of us that deal with it on a daily basis.
In order to get a full perspective of the issue at hand, let me first address Cuba's political system and U.S. policy towards Cuba in general, as these have important implications for the subject of agricultural trade with Cuba.
First of all, Cuba is not China and it is not Vietnam. It is not an authoritarian bureaucracy. Cuba is one of a handful of totalitarian states remaining in the world, alongside Burma and North Korea.
I hate to delve too far into political science, or even sound patronizing, but it's important to understand the dynamics of a totalitarian state in order to understand the Cuban reality.
A totalitarian state strives to control every aspect of public and private life. Totalitarian regimes, such as Cuba's, maintain themselves in power by means of an all-embracing cult of personality; propaganda disseminated through a state-controlled media; a single party that controls the state; absolute control over the economy; restrictions on discussion and criticism; the use of mass surveillance; and state terrorism to foment fear and submission.
As regards food consumption, Cubans are condemned, not by their own choice, but by that of the ruling regime, to a system of rationing, or as it's known in Cuba, the Libreta de Abastecimiento ("ration card").
On top of rationing -- of which the Cuban regime announced this week it plans to further "ration the ration" -- the average wage of a regular Cuban is about 350 pesos per month ($17-20).
Cubans can not change jobs, change residence inside Cuba, or leave the country without government permission.
Cubans are prohibited from using hotels, restaurants or other facilities reserved for tourists.
A person can get more jail time for killing a cow in Cuba (10 years in prison) than for killing a human. Those who sell beef without government permission can get three to eight years in prison. Consumers of illegal beef can get three months to one year in prison. And just to clarify, Cubans are not bound to any religious or cultural observations regarding beef, this is purely a political and economic decision of the regime.
Cuba, Zimbabwe and North Korea (177-179) comprise the least free economies in the world, according to the Wall Street Journal's 2009 Index of Economic Freedom.
I hope I've painted a good picture of the obsession for absolute control by Cuba's regime. Now, let me proceed to U.S. policy towards Cuba.
The US has a dual track policy towards Cuba. It seeks to – first and foremost -- provide support to the constantly besieged Cuban civil society (by civil society, I'm referring to opposition groups, religious organizations, independent journalists, and other marginalized, independent – and therefore illegal -- trade groups); while –secondly -- denying hard currency and resources to the Cuban dictatorship. In other words, U.S. policy seeks to weaken the Cuban regime's absolute monopoly over power and resources, in order to help the Cuban civil society create some sort of "playing field" for itself, despite the grossly disproportionate circumstances it faces.
Within this context, U.S. policy sees sanctions as an important tool that not only denies resources to the regime, but also provides important moral and political support to the Cuban civil society. However, it is important to understand that U.S. sanctions towards Cuba are not defined indefinitely, they are subject to conditions, and have been specifically codified into U.S. law as such. Since 1996 -- with the codification of this policy -- the power to ease or terminate sanctions shifted from the executive to the legislative branch of the U.S. government.
According to law, the U.S. will only lift the remaining trade sanctions and normalize relations with the Cuba when three essential conditions are met: 1. the unconditional release of all political prisoners, 2. the recognition and respect of the fundamental human, political, and economic rights of the Cuban people, and 3. opposition parties are legalized.
Therefore, any unilateral adjustment or further easing of U.S. sanctions prior to progress made on these conditions would not only send a devastating message to the Cuban civil society, but could also have very serious geopolitical ramifications as well.
Thirty-four (34) out of the thirty-five (35) nations of this Western Hemisphere are democratic. Granted, we have better relationships with some than with others, and frankly, some are outright hostile to the U.S. However, we cannot afford a return to the dictatorships -- whether of the left or of the right -- that ruled Latin America for most of the 20th century. Some may have appeared to be good for business at the time, but they are all damaging to the 21st century national interests of the U.S. Normalizing relations with Cuba's dictatorship would open a Pandora's Box that might lead to history repeating itself. And trust me, there are plenty of leaders with authoritarian tendencies ready to take advantage of such a moment.
Let me proceed, and conclude, with the issue of trade.
To speak of "trade with Cuba" is in itself a misrepresentation. To "trade with Cuba" is not about trading with the nation's businesses and people. Under the Cuban regime's constitution, only one company is allowed to engage in international trade -- that company is called Alimport. Therefore, I'm a regular Cuban citizen, and I want to import chickens from Maryland, I'm not allowed to – even if I had the capital to do so. Only Mr. Pedro Alvarez, the head of the Cuban regime's Alimport, is solely authorized to import products to Cuba – to the entire island. That's it. Cubans have no stake in it.
Therefore, we should be forthright and call it "trade with Alimport," or "trade with Cuba's monopoly," which leads to the question:
Why does the Castro regime insist on monopolizing food in Cuba?
Furthermore, why does the Castro regime only authorize one company, Alimport, to engage in agricultural trade?
There's no food in the Cuban people's ration stores, but plenty of food in the island's hard-currency supermarkets for tourists, diplomats and the regime's bourgeois, which are stocked by Alimport.
The answer is: Because food is also a weapon of submission in a totalitarian regime.
Therefore, every dollar that the 157 companies from 35 states have transacted in agricultural sales with Cuba since the 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform Act has only had one Cuban counterpart.
Judging by the interest of all the diverse trade groups here today, you would think that Alimport was the biggest monopoly in the world. Far from, it's part and parcel of a bankrupt regime whose foreign debt more than doubles its GDP and represents one of the greatest credit risks in the world. To top it off, foreign companies have been currently denouncing that their bank accounts in Cuba have been frozen, some dating six months back, and European holders of Cuban debt were just informed last week that bond payments would be postponed – again.
The good news is that the U.S. has zero credit exposure to Cuba, as current policy prohibits the extension of credit to the Castro regime.
Despite sanctions, the U.S. proudly remains the largest provider of humanitarian aid to Cuba, last year alone surpassing $270 million. There are no legal restrictions to the amount of humanitarian aid that one can send directly to the Cuban people. Cubans are extremely smart people, they know that it is not U.S. sanctions that prohibits them from freely expressing themselves; it is not sanctions that keeps them from entering those beautiful resorts, with their restaurants and bars; it's not sanctions that keep them from entering the plentiful "diplotienda" supermarkets; it's not sanctions that keep them from choosing their own destiny. It is the Cuban regime that does so.
Furthermore, Cubans on the island know what democratic ideals are. In many cases, they have given the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of those ideals. Let's not forget, Cuba has the largest prison population – per capita – in the world. Ten percent of the Cuban population has died, either trying to cross the Florida Straits, executed or imprisoned. Add to that another ten percent that has been exiled. Those are Stalin-Mao proportions.
We all know that Cuban dictator Raul Castro lacks Fidel's persuasive charisma and faces a big leadership test amidst the global economic squeeze. So the question to ask is: Who deserves the benefits of trade with the U.S.? The geriatric regime that represses and monopolizes the lives of Cubans, or those pro-democracy advocates that are courageously undertaking a daily struggle for a better tomorrow.
Hopefully, the answer will be the latter. And at that time, I hope we can gather here and discuss the prospects for a free trade agreement between the U.S. and a future democratic government in Cuba.
I am going to wrap up here. I hope I've been able to spark your interest and look forward to any questions or comments.
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