Chamber of crony capitalism sells out Cubans
US trade concessions without regard for human rights would betray principle

Reuters

US Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Donohue (C) talks to the media after meeting with Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez in Havana May 27, 2014.

Article Highlights

  • The Castro regime has sought to entice foreign companies to Cuba by offering slave wages and stolen property.

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  • US Chamber of Commerce Pres Donohue, wrapped up a visit to Cuba, citing “evidence that we’re seeing an extraordinary expansion of free enterprise.”

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  • Obama has refused to make more concessions, though, unless the regime makes meaningful changes in how it treats the Cuban people.

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For the past 15 years, the Castro regime has sought to entice foreign companies to Cuba by offering slave wages and stolen property. The cost of doing business there is that you pay workers’ salaries to the regime, take the government as your business partner and agree to lobby against the U.S. embargo.

As astonishing as it sounds, there are American businessmen who look upon these woeful conditions and ask, “How do I get in on this?” U.S. policy bars “trading with the enemy.” People who have no particular interest in changing “the enemy” set out to change U.S policy.

For example, U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas J. Donohue, just wrapped up a visit to Cuba, citing “evidence that we’re seeing an extraordinary expansion of free enterprise.” Of course, that is utter nonsense, demonstrating that Mr. Donohue has learned nothing since he first hyped Fidel Castro’s “reforms” 15 years ago.

According to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom 2014, Cuba actually recorded “double-digit declines in business freedom and investment freedom” in the past year. That is quite a feat, because only North Korea ranks worse than Cuba among the 178 countries rated in the annual Heritage study. If Mr. Donohue is interested in touting economic freedom, almost literally the last people on the planet he should be courting are cronies of the Castro dictatorship.

In recent weeks, several other groups have appealed for reform on Cuba — not for reform in Cuba, but reform of U.S. policy. The New York-based Council of the Americas issued a May 19 “Open Letter to President Obama” recommending initiatives to support “independent economic activity.” The signers of this message include retired U.S. officials, most of whom, in my personal experience, never showed the slightest interest in the cause of freedom in Cuba when they were in a position to do something about it. Many of the ideas they endorse for encouraging economic freedom have some merit. However, the fatal flaw is their call for a dialogue that would legitimize the regime that is an intractable obstacle to political and economic liberty in Cuba.

“Giving oxygen to the Cuban government would mean that the United States is turning its back on the Cuban people.” That’s how dissident leader Berta Soler sized up the council’s proposal. Dissident Manuel Cuesta Morua assessed that the signers “don’t know how things work here,” and questioned their failure to refer to human rights. “Given the reality and the rules imposed by Castro, it would be impossible” for Cubans to benefit from the initiatives recommended in the letter, according to Jose Daniel Ferrer of Cuba’s Patriotic Union.

The Chamber of Commerce trip and Council of the Americas letter come on the heels of a February poll on Cuba policy released by a Washington website committed to ending the U.S. embargo. For decades, these same pundits sneered at U.S. policy, saying it was driven merely by crass politics. Their monumental contribution to this debate is an appeal for unilateral concessions to the Castro regime because of a poll. You can’t make this stuff up.

Three things these initiatives have in common is that they would benefit the regime, they could end up hurting average Cubans, and they are being offered by people who have no real stake in what happens on the island. These pundits have a hunch that they know better than people with knowledge, experience and family ties. With very few exceptions, they don’t know anyone on the island who will pay the price if the United States clumsily helps the gasping regime catch its breath.

Of course, not everyone who cares about the Cuban people thinks the same about how best to bring about change there. However, most draw the line at concessions that would clearly benefit the regime without helping 11 million Cubans.

Then there’s Charlie Crist — who, as governor of Florida, looked into the eyes of Cuban exiles, heard their heartbreaking stories and maybe wiped away a tear or two. In his bid to win his old job back, Mr. Crist has flip-flopped on Cuba policy, pledging to confer and trade with the Castro regime — playing the angles on an issue in which he knows lives are at stake.

President Obama has relaxed some restrictions on family travel and cash remittances. He has refused to make more concessions, though, unless the regime makes meaningful changes in how it treats the Cuban people. Let’s hope he sticks to that simple, principled position.

Roger F. Noriega is a former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States and assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration.

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