Foreign Policy: Cuba

The United States should trade goods, not insults, with Cuba.

It’s getting harder to escape the conclusion U.S. policy toward Cuba is more a matter of electoral politics than serious foreign policy. That was glaringly obvious last weekend as new travel and aid restrictions advanced by the Bush administration took effect. The measures may help deliver Florida to President George W. Bush this November, as they seemed timed to do, but few expect them to unseat the aging Castro anytime soon.

After 45 years of failed policies, the need for a fresh approach to the tiny island nation has never been clearer.

Castro has a dismal human rights record. Last year’s jailing of 75 political activists and journalists was only the latest clampdown on basic freedoms in Cuba. But if democratic reform is the clear answer, promoting those reforms has never been easy.

The United States did not shy away from coup attempts and wild assassination plots during the Cold War. Today, U.S. policy is aimed at starving the dictator of badly needed foreign currency and isolating the country. The tactics may have changed, but the goal remains the same: overthrowing Castro.

The latest restrictions limit Cuban-Americans to one visit every three years, down from one per year. They also include tighter rules on relief packages and tougher enforcement on travel bans. The new measures have drawn justified criticism from many Cuban-Americans.

The Bush administration’s anachronistic Cuban policy should heighten the call for a fresh approach. Political leaders from farm states, including former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and Senator Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., have long recognized the potential benefits of increased economic trade with Cuba. Easing trade restrictions would help the ailing farm economies in many states.

Trade with Cuba might also do the one thing isolation has not – weaken the Castro regime and promote democracy. That approach has already exposed China to the outside influences that may one day topple its one-party Communist rule. It could begin to work in Cuba too, if only U.S. leaders would stop trading insults with Castro and start trading goods and services.