June/July 2016 IssueIt’s getting increasingly difficult to justify treating Cuba differently from every other American trading partner, although Gov. Asa Hutchinson may have found a new way to do so.
The governor was the keynote speaker at a March 21 symposium at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute on Petit Jean Mountain, on the subject of how normalizing trade with Cuba could affect the U.S. agriculture sector.
The governor, who visited Cuba last fall, said the country represents a “great market opportunity” for U.S. exporters, particularly those in Arkansas. Cuba was once the biggest foreign customer for U.S. rice, and Hutchinson said the Communist island nation is the world’s largest per capita consumer of the grain at 177 pounds per year. Arkansas produces half of the U.S. rice crop.
“And yet,” he said, “that market is, to a certain extent, excluded from us.”
Cuba did buy some U.S. rice after food sales there were re-legalized in 2000, but has since turned to other suppliers.
The governor noted Cuba still buys Arkansas poultry, and imports 80 percent of its food needs. To capitalize on that demand, he called for the 55-year-old embargo to be lifted in stages, beginning with a law that bars U.S. companies from selling goods to Cuba on credit.
Why not lift the embargo all at once? Because the embargo itself, the governor maintained, has left Cuba frozen in the era of the Cold War, and frozen in time economically. He said, “In my meeting with the Cuban officials they emphasized to me, and this is their language, ‘We have still not forgotten the principles of the revolution.’”
China, he said, will talk capitalism and return on investment, as will Vietnam. Cuba will not.
The Chinese had a $365 billion trade surplus with the United States last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis. In the late 1970s, the U.S. actually had a small trade surplus with China. We still don’t buy anything from Cuba, and the governor said the embargo “has been instrumental in strangling the Cuban economy — that was the goal of it…but it has also not been successful in terms of changing the Castro regime, changing the centralized government, changing the Communist rule in that country and the repression of freedom.”
China, of course, still has a centralized government and Communist rule. Freedom House, the 75-year-old global human rights watchdog organization, gives China a freedom rating of 6.5 on a scale of 1 to 7 best to worst, a 6 in civil liberties, and a 7 in political rights. Cuba’s ranking is the same.
The notion that his country is trapped in the past rankled Ruben Ramos Arrieta, Minister Counselor of the Economic and Trade Office at Cuba’s U.S. embassy in Washington, D.C.
“Thinking that Cuba is frozen in the ’50s or in the ’60s, the criteria that the governor has, this is not our belief,” Arrieta told AMP. “If you go to Cuba, you can realize that the Cuban people are very proud of my country. They are always moving forward, fighting for having a better world and a better country, fighting for having a better economy.”
In particular, he cited reforms enacted in 2011, when Raul Castro succeeded his brother Fidel as president.
To be fair, Hutchinson was arguing for an eventual end to the embargo entirely. He said once Havana gains greater access to the riches offered by American free enterprise, it may provide an incentive to them to further open their society; then, we can ease things further. But again, there has been no advancement of human rights in China. There’s something else standing in the way.
That something else may be the property owned by Cuban expatriates and their heirs now residing in the United States that was nationalized by Castro. Some years ago, I talked to Juan Sanchez, who said he was Secretary-General of the National Sugar Cane Growers Association of Cuba. None of the members, including Sanchez, were living in Cuba. They were looking toward the day when the Castros were gone, and they would get their property back.
If that is the lone remaining barrier to relations with our neighbor 90 miles off the Florida coast, it’s time for it to be swept away. In order to achieve full opening of the Cuban market, which the governor believes will lead to an “economic explosion” there, somebody’s dreams are going to have to be dashed. Cuban families who fled to these shores will have to be content with what they have gained under our more open economy. Both sides can make concessions in their own interests — for Gov. Hutchinson, credit sales to Cuba; for Raul Castro, the recent acceptance of dockings by American cruise ships — but, the true revolution here would be to treat Cuba like China, and Vietnam. And, everybody else.