Cuba and twisted logic, double standards

It is time for the United States to stop trading with China and ban Americans from travelling there. Why? Look at the U.S. Department of State's most recent annual report on human rights around the world.

"The (Chinese) government's human rights record remained poor and worsened in some areas," the report notes. "Tens of thousands of political prisoners remained incarcerated (in 2009)."

U.S. relations with Egypt should also be frozen, because "the government's respect for human rights remained poor, and serious abuses continued in many areas…Security forces used unwarranted lethal force and tortured and abused prisoners and detainees, in most cases with impunity."

No American politician would consider sanctions on China, the U.S.'s second largest trade partner, or Egypt, one of its closest allies in the Arab world. They should, if they followed the logic that has underpinned five decades of a trade embargo on Cuba and a ban on travel to the island for most Americans.

Proponents of maintaining the sanctions routinely cite the State Department's human rights reports on Cuba. The most recent, for 2009, lists 194 political prisoners and criticizes "harsh and life-threatening" prison conditions.

For decades, the U.S. case has been that the embargo must remain in place as long as Cuba doesn't have democratically-elected leaders, holds political prisoners and violates human rights. By that token, a long list of countries in addition to China and Egypt should be subject to American sanctions. Cuba has long been treated as a special case.

U.S. policy on Cuba has become subject of debate again after the release of seven imprisoned dissidents in July under an agreement between Cuba's Roman Catholic church and the communist government led by Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008. Another 45 dissidents are due to be freed over the next few months.

Will that ensure success for the latest attempt in the U.S. congress to normalize relations, a pending bill that would end the travel ban and ease the embargo? Don't bet on it. Castro-hating Cuban exiles have a long track record of torpedoing moves towards change and President Barack Obama shows no sign of helping to push the proposed legislation.

As a presidential candidate, Obama frequently talked of a "new strategy" on Cuba and once in office, he lifted some restrictions on remittances and travel to the island by Cuban-Americans. Other than that, he and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, have been serving the country "refried Bush-era policy," as Larry Birns of the liberal Council on Hemispheric affairs put it.

Tortured Logic

The pending bill, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, is backed by agriculture exporters and business groups who think that the embargo is ineffective -- and bad for business.

The loudest opposition has come from Robert Menendez, a Democratic senator from New Jersey, and to fully appreciate the tortured logic of Cuban policy hawks, a passionate speech he made on the floor of the Senate in mid-July merits attention.

After vowing to do everything in his power to block the legislation, he complained that "the big corporate interests behind this misguided attempt to weaken the travel ban could not care less whether the Cuban people are free. They care only about opening a new market and increasing the bottom line."

What a concept! American corporations wanting to open new markets and make a profit! Capitalism gone berserk?

The position of Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants, is at odds with the rest of the Democratic party and, according to polls, with most Americans. Hard-liners like him tend to blank out a chapter of Cuban history that also featured a dictatorship and American businesses intent on increasing their bottom line.

In the 1950s, when Cuba was run by Fulgencio Batista with an iron right-wing fist and scant regard for human rights, U.S. companies were active in virtually every sector of the economy, close to 60 percent of Cuban exports went to the United States and imports from the U.S. accounted for more than 70 percent of the total.

The joined-at-the-hip relationship came to an end in 1959, when Fidel Castro and his bearded revolutionaries seized power. The expropriation of U.S. property, from banks to tobacco enterprises, soon followed. In 1962, Washington retaliated with the trade embargo in expectation that economic hardship would help topple the government and bring democracy to the island.

Instead, it gave Fidel Castro a convenient excuse to blame the many shortcomings of his government on the Americans.

"We have tried to isolate Cuba for more than 50 years and it has not worked," said Collin Peterson, the Democratic congressman who introduced the bill to allow travel and relax the embargo. "As it has in other countries, perhaps increasing trade…will encourage democratic progress."

Why not try?

[Source: World Affairs columnist Bernd Debusmann, Reuters, 20Jul10]

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