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LA Cuba trade policy must avoid wishfulness

As the Louisiana Legislature reviews a bill to restart an economic relationship with Cuba, policy-makers must not make the same mistakes form over a decade ago. From the initial reaction from some senators, it does not seem that they will avoid the same errors, but the process has just begun.

HCR 37 by state Rep. Patrick Connick doesn’t ask for much, just that the state review business opportunities in Cuba and report back to the Legislature. Actually, this means little in that, since 2001 when federal law changed to allow food and humanitarian trade with Cuba, business opportunities remain unaffected even with Pres. Barack Obama’s unilateral normalization of relations a couple of years ago. But what it does not ask makes the difference between what the measure could do to invigorate desirable system evolution and it becoming complicit in a propaganda exercise that might bring some monetary benefits to businesses but do nothing to bring the country out of its totalitarian system.

That latter outcome describes the 2005 trip made by former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and several legislators to Cuba, then led by the Führer of the Caribbean Fidel Castro. Blanco went there also looking for business opportunities during the existing near-total embargo and during a highly-publicized propaganda war between the two states. With her previous 2004 trip and this one paid for by Cuba, her demonstration of political naïveté went from average to exceptional when she allowed Castro to accost and harangue her about her national government, in a former church forcibly desacralized by Castro, and then before leaving the island did not accept the request of her own national government to meet with a Nobel prize-winner dissident.

In other words, she got used as a propaganda tool in exchange for $15 million in sales promises eventually hampered by federal government trade restrictions. But supposedly, optimists argue, this outcome should not recur now that the Il Duce of the Caribbean, Raúl Castro, has taken over from his older brother. Allegedly, this Castro practices more pragmatic politics, making it more likely that engagement would produce beneficial political changes in Cuba away from totalitarianism.

State senators commenting about the bill seemed to believe this. Regrettably, they appear uninformed about the facts on the ground. Castro has created a façade of genuine structural reform but in the ways that matter little has changed that increased U.S. economic involvement could leverage into forcing more system openness. What has happened over the last decade mirrors in many ways the perestroika attempts of the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev that occurred only because of unrelenting pressure by the West led by former Pres. Ronald Reagan. Only in maintaining that pressure did the Soviet Union dissolve.

Now, in essence, Obama wants to turn that off, which stifles system transformation. Of course, most states around the world have normalized trade with Cuba already, blunting the effectiveness of the isolation policy, although the expense because of the geographic distances involved and the poverty Cuba’s communism has induced, which means little in trade volume, limits that counter-impact.

Still, it’s possible to conduct greater engagement while preventing the propping up of the regime. Any report must recommend that state policy, insofar as it may have an impact on international relations that a state could affect only through subsidization of such trade directly through grants or indirectly through tax treatments, advances systemic change in Cuba, such as through certifications that the trade in question can improve human rights like enhances freedom of speech and worship.

While the resolution may not convey the impression, Louisiana already has a major presence among exporters to Cuba; it’s just that most of the goods involved come in transit, not originally from the state. At the same time, the existing market on the island, especially as the Republican-majority Congress shows no sign of wanting to lift the embargo, has little potential to grow. Thus, any state direct involvement in promoting trade with Cuba must recognize that it follow a design first and foremost that promotes democratization and respect for human rights.

Cuba remains far too closed to think that policy encouraging exports alone will transform the system in a positive direction. Any Louisiana policy-making in this realm must adhere to this reality.

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