Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Arkansas and Cuba

Finally, President Obama has done something that won the accord of every member of the Arkansas congressional delegation, Republican and Democrats, a rarity for any president in the past three decades. And it was for so little, though potentially so much.

The president announced that he was relaxing restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ travel to Cuba and their ability to send money and gifts to family members on the island. He also will allow U. S. telecommunications companies to negotiate licensing agreements with Cuba so that there will be more communication among Cubans here and on the island through cell phones and satellite television.

As the current Cuban dictator, Raul Castro, said yesterday, that is not much of a gesture. Castro wants the United States to lift the trade embargo imposed on the country a half-century ago after the Batista dictatorship fell to Fidel Castro’s rebels. The blockade is what has brought hardship to Cubans, not the sanctions on travel and cash exchange, he said.

He is absolutely right, of course. That is also the view of the five Democrats and the single Republican from Arkansas who cheered the president’s minuscule gesture. Arkansas businesses and farmers — notably rice and poultry — want to enter the Cuban market, poor though it is. They are not much concerned about the plight of the Cuban people but of our own. The annual sale of a few cargoes of rice and chickens to Cubans would be a nice fillip to the sagging export economy of the state.

With some members of the Arkansas delegation —most, probably — political ideology, which has driven U. S. relations with Cuba for a half-century, always took a subordinate place to the exigencies of money. Sen. J. William Fulbright thought the trade restrictions were intemperate and self-defeating when they were imposed after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. His interests were not ideological but the rice and soybean farmers of the Arkansas Delta. Before his defeat in 1992, Rep. Bill Alexander Jr. was a lonely voice for changing relations with Cuba for the same reason, and Rep. Marion Berry has taken up the cause.

President Obama noticeably did not say that he planned to relax trade sanctions, but the little gesture on travel and gifts seemed to hint that reciprocal measures by the Castro government, perhaps the liberation of political prisoners, might lead to real change in relations. Rep. Vic Snyder called Obama’s announcement a baby step in the right direction. “There is so much more we can do that would be helpful both to the Cuban people and American national security,” Snyder said. “We need to have a robust economic relationship, and we need to eliminate the restraints on Americans traveling to Cuba. Arkansas raises the products that Cubans want to buy — poultry, rice, soybeans. Cuba’s very interested in quality agricultural products from the United States.”

All true, but there is much more to it than mutually beneficial trade. The hard-line policy followed by every administration since John F. Kennedy and every Congress has been an abject and transparent failure. The embargo was supposed to create such suffering and hardship that Cubans would rise up and overthrow the Castro regime.

Unilateral sanctions never produce those results, not in the Middle East, not in Asia, not behind the Iron Curtain and not in the Gulf of Mexico. They prove to be weapons for dictators, a way to show people that the United States is their enemy. It works for Iran, it worked for Saddam Hussein after he fell out with the first President Bush in 1990 and it worked for 50 years for Fidel Castro.

Trade, engagement and diplomacy also work for free-market democracies, if subtly and glacially.

If Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor, Mike Ross, Vic Snyder, Marion Berry and, yes, John Boozman know that, and say it, can a truly enlightened policy toward an old neighbor with so much intertwined history be far behind?