A Distinguished Diplomat's View

Sunday, December 6, 2009
The impossible dream, again

By Ambassador Everett 'Ted' Ellis Briggs

My father was a U.S. diplomat stationed in Cuba when I was born. Thus I am an American by birth who spent my life as an American diplomat serving in many countries, including Portugal, Honduras, and Panama where I was the American ambassador.

Because we lived in Cuba for many years, I have remained interested in the island's affairs.

I attended this month's House Foreign Affairs Committee hearings on whether to lift restrictions on tourist travel to Cuba. Many in Congress, who favor a softer U.S. policy, argue we should neither demand nor expect anything in return from the Castro regime for lifting what remains of the U.S. embargo. It doesn't bother them that Havana rejected President Obama's request, when he lifted restrictions on remittances and family visits, that Cuba respond by releasing its political prisoners.

In fact, it is misleading to continue to call U.S. restrictions on commercial dealings with Cuba an "embargo." Today's restrictions aim not to undermine the regime, but rather to avoid financing its longevity, and they do so without harm to the Cuban people.

That's because the hardships of Cuban life don't stem from the U.S. "embargo." They stem from the mind-numbing economic and heavy-handed political policies of Cuba's communist regime.

The regime tries to blame the United States for widespread shortages in Cuba, but the Cubans know that the United States is one of the island's most important sources of food, feed and other agricultural products, including lumber and paper.

Current U.S. trade with Cuba is valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. What makes it different is that the United States requires Cuba to pay cash for its American imports, because Cuba has repeatedly defaulted on payments to suppliers extending credit. Were America to extend credit to Cuba, essentially guaranteeing American exporters would be paid, U. S. taxpayers would get stuck with the bill for its default. Until Cuba returns to being a "normal" country with a rule of law, credit restrictions are prudent and ought to be maintained.

It is the regime that embargoes the Cuban people, resisting changes that can improve life in Cuba but might disturb the status quo. For example, Washington recently offered to facilitate construction of a fiber-optic cable connection. Havana rejected the idea as a threat to its "national security."

U.S. law also bars investment in Cuba to prevent American corporations from becoming "junior partners" in this communist government. In Cuba, the government is the only employer. The government assigns jobs, sets pay scales and serves as paymaster. Foreign investors pay the regime to supply labor. Cuba not only sets the amount to be paid, it demands payment in a hard currency. The government then keeps 90 percent of what investors pay and remits the remainder in near worthless pesos to workers. "Foreign investment" in Cuba is not only unfriendly toward labor, it directly subsidizes and strengthens the regime's repression of workers.

The argument that unrestricted travel by American tourists to Cuba would expose Cubans and the regime to our way of life and soften government resistance to reform flies in the face of experience and history. Tourism is Cuba's major source of foreign revenue, and the hordes of European and Canadian tourists have wrought no perceptible changes in Cuba. Worldwide, there are no examples of dictators allowing tourists to undermine their rule.

U.S. interests are better served by our principled opposition to the Castro dynasty and restricting commerce that benefits the Cuban government. There is nothing to be gained by trying to win the good will of tyrants who have demonstrated unbounded enmity toward the United States.

Cuba remains a cancer in the Western Hemisphere. With help from Venezuela and radical Arab states, it has resumed spreading virulent anti-American propaganda, most recently accusing the United States of genocide against Cuba.

Congress should not pretend that softening U.S. policy will dissipate the enmity of the Castro brothers. America's national interest requires that Congress recognize Havana's challenge to freedom, its continuing efforts to infiltrate its spies in the American government, and it's promotion of violent anti-American groups worldwide.

Everett "Ted" Ellis Briggs is a former United States Ambassador to Portugal, Panama and Honduras.

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