Cuban Economy

Three experts suggest “How the Democratic candidates should talk about Cuba”

From, published March 4, 2020


The media and debate moderators are asking Democratic candidates the wrong questions about Cuba. Rather than argue about attitudes toward Fidel Castro, who is dead and buried, they should ask these questions that address issues today. What are American interests in Cuba, and how can they be achieved? Do the sanctions imposed by President Trump work, or would furthering the opening started under President Obama better serve American interests? Having studied relations between the United States and Cuba for years, we can see how a Democratic nominee could make the case for a more effective foreign policy with the following ideas.

First, secure American borders by working together. When there is solid cooperation across the Florida Straits, Cuba makes possible 700 miles of southern border where there is no threat, no terrorism, no drug flights, no human trafficking, and an orderly migration agreement, which the current administration violates. With the demise of cooperation from the top with government leaders to the working class level, every one of those issues has now become a greater problem for American national security.

Second, promote trade with the United States. Cuba needs everything from agricultural products to industrial goods and infrastructure. The restrictions under Trump make it more difficult for Cuba to buy wheat from Minnesota or rice from Louisiana, which is why Amy Klobuchar has sponsored a Senate bill to lift the embargo. There is huge potential in the tourist sector in Cuba, with more than four million international visitors coming to the island each year. However, our rules blocking American investment mean the Europeans and Canadians are eating our lunches, buying up stakes in the best colonial buildings to renovate into modern hotels and seizing early shares in what will one day be an even larger market when American citizens are allowed to travel freely to Cuba.

Third, help out Cubans. Trump premises his policies on the belief that if Cubans suffer, they will overthrow their government, the same strategy that failed for more than five decades. Sanctions have not denied Raul Castro or Miguel Diaz Canel a single meal. However, they harm ordinary Cubans. American threats of retaliation against foreign companies doing business in Cuba have made it much more difficult to obtain inputs for manufacturing medicines. People with chronic health conditions can no longer count on steady supplies of their lifesaving medications.

Only three years ago in Havana, we saw restaurants, artisan shops, and independent taxis making money and hiring workers. This year, many of the cafes were closed and the taxis stood idle. Thousands of cruise ship passengers used to stroll through Havana buying souvenirs and snacks from vendors. With the ban imposed by this administration on cruise lines, those international visitors are gone, and so is their street level spending. Cubans entrepreneurs kept asking us when they would come back.

Fourth, support Cuban Americans. The Obama era policies drew majority support from Cuban Americans. Some diehards oppose any contact with the island until the Communist Party relinquishes power. However, Cuban Americans who were born in the United States or who have arrived since the 1990s want to visit and aid their family members rather than see them condemned to hunger and isolation. It does Cuban Americans no favors to have canceled all flights landing outside Havana, which had primarily served family visits, or to cap the money they can send to relatives.

Fifth, do not hinder more openness and freedom in Cuba. Sanctions and threats certainly do not encourage the Cuban government to risk more political space for critics and independent journalism, which is practiced gingerly on web platforms. Any political regime that feels endangered will circle the wagons. At the moment, anyone with money can enjoy mostly unrestricted internet access, and Cubans are starting to design apps. So granting American companies and consumers permission to engage with them would be better than causing a sense of national emergency.

Sixth, promote biomedical research to combat disease. Bernie Sanders is not wrong when he points to the disproportionate Cuban investment in education and health, which produced a highly trained medical sector. Under Obama, Roswell Park Cancer Center in New York was allowed to test a promising Cuban lung cancer vaccine, and the American firm Mercurio Biotec will test a new Cuban drug that reduces the need for amputations in people with diabetes. But discussions of further such cooperative ventures have unfortunately been halted under Trump.

Finally, restore United States standing in Latin America and address the worst crisis in the hemisphere. The opening to Cuba under Obama was the single most important act to restore good relations with the region. The revival of the Caribbean Cold War under Trump, with his tariffs and immigration policies, resurrects the old image of the United States as an imperial menace. Given close ties between Cuba and Venezuela, better relations with Cuba could open the door to peaceful settlement of the infernal situation in that country, which is now on track to produce more refugees than Syria. The United States and Cuba have worked together in the past to settle conflicts in Angola, Colombia, and Central America. If the road to peace in Caracas runs through Havana, that may be the one most significant case for a sensible Democratic position on Cuba.

Max Paul Friedman is a professor of history, Philip Brenner is a professor of international relations, and Eric Hershberg is the director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University in Washington.

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