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Strain adopts short-sighted approach on Cuba

Public administration has a theory regarding the behavior of executives overseeing discrete policy areas, that over time these individuals’ focus shifts away from more ideological approaches to greater alignment with the culture and interests of the agency directed. After almost a decade of running the Department of Agriculture and Forestry, current boss Mike Strain fits this pattern.

The Republican entered office in 2008 promising to clean up after former head Democrat Bob Odom, who left a legacy of waste and patronage. He largely has accomplished this, slimming down department numbers (perhaps more than he preferred, given recent state budgetary struggles) and managing a spending drop from $102.7 million in fiscal year 2008 to last fiscal year’s $74.5 million.

But in recent remarks to the Baton Rouge Press Club, Strain indicated that he has checked some other conservative issue preferences at the door to his office, specifically regarding the issue of Cuba. Still run by the Castro dynasty for almost six decades, despite extremely modest changes from its Soviet model, Cuba’s government and economy remain exceptionally closed and oppressive. In fact, the very tepid reforms launched under Raúl Castro seem to have run out of steam – ironically, in part because former Pres. Barack Obama removed travel restrictions and set to normalize relations.

However, Republican Pres. Donald Trump has pledged a review of this, with the potential of reversing Obama’s policies. Problematically, the Obama pledge, made just after the 2014 midterm elections disastrous for his party, served as a potential lifeline for the regime, the collectivist policies of which continue to inflict economic hardship on its people and has remained propped up only by the existence of the Soviet Union followed by the Chavista movement controlling Venezuela. With the latter now facing the reckoning of economic policies not dissimilar to Cuba’s and steep declines in the price of its main export, petroleum, over the past several years, its aid keeping Cuba afloat has collapsed.

Regrettably, Obama’s shift has done nothing to ease human rights concerns, which more than ever appear solvable only with regime change internally or externally, which the economic embargo encourages. While few states have one against Cuba (except for humanitarian needs in the case of the U.S.), given its size and proximity the American trade restrictions have outsized influence on Cuba. Simply, without the lifting of these, Cuba cannot survive in its present form, and Trump would do well to ensure no changes occur in this area. Continued pressure in this way will have the Castro regime either fall on its own accord or dramatically repudiate its Soviet model.

This all seems to escape Strain, who did not criticize a pullback but who seemed eager to expand trade and relations with Cuba. The U.S. continues as a major trader with Cuba despite the limited range of goods involved, and Louisiana does the most business with it among the states. Strain has enjoyed two all-expenses-paid trips to Cuba promoting agricultural trade.

Yet even as increased commercial ties might line the pockets of Louisiana farmers, that loses sight of the larger picture: this would aid and abet a regime that makes its people suffer and works against U.S. interests in other ways, while forgoing such a policy likely at a future point in time would produce policy more beneficial to the Cuban people and more aligned with U.S. interests as a whole.

Strain isn’t the only policy-maker in the state who has lost sight of this. GOP Rep. Ralph Abraham has lent his name to a bill that would reverse many strictures on agricultural trade. Just as Strain allows the daily interaction his job has with agricultural interests to influence his views on this matter, no doubt Abraham also has allowed his constituents, as agriculture makes up a big part of his district’s interests, to shape his behavior in this policy area.

Still, one should not miss the forest for the trees, and Strain and Abraham should temper their support for trade normalization with Cuba by keeping the bigger picture in mind.

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