Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn recently made their second trip to Cuba. Carter also went in 2002. Both trips, undertaken as a private citizen (but no former president is really a private citizen), were designed to try and move U.S – Cuba relations in a more positive direction.
Predictably, Carter was immediately denounced as a “shill for Castro” and an apologist for the Cuba government. Such criticism seems to roll of the former president’s back like water off a duck and Carter’s report on the visit, posted at the Carter Center website, paints a much different picture of what he did and said in Havana. Here’s the concluding paragraph of his trip summary:
“Both privately and publicly I continued to call for the end of our economic blockade against the Cuban people, the lifting of all travel, trade, and financial restraints, the release of Alan Gross [a jailed U.S. contractor] and the Cuban Five [Cuban dissidents], an end to U.S. policy that Cuba promotes terrorism, for freedom of speech, assembly, and travel in Cuba, and the establishment of full relations between our two countries. At the airport, Raul [Castro, the Cuba president] told the press, ‘I agree with everything that President Carter said.'”
For 50 years the United States has had an embargo against Cuba. During the Bush Administration and for most of that 50 years, it has been extremely difficult, even illegal, to travel to Cuba. Trade has been strictly banned. The Obama Administration has relaxed the travel rules some, but the chance that the two countries might actually get on a path to more normal relations remains wrapped around the axle of south Florida politics. The Cuba-American community there, largely Republican voters, remains a potent political force and last I checked Florida still played an outsized role in presidential politics. For years the political facts of life in one state have largely dictated the nation’s policy toward Cuba.
Nevertheless, by almost any measure our Cuban policy has run its course, and not just because I’d like to buy an extremely expensive Cuba cigar in the United States. At one time, post-Bay of Pigs and post-Cuban missile crisis it was easy to make the argument that Fidel Castro’s island regime was settling in to become a genuine threat to U.S. and Latin American security. Cuba did meddle in revolutions in far away places, like Angola, but today there is much reason to acknowledge that the Cuba-Soviet relationship was never as seamless as we feared nor was Castro, the socialist revolutionary, as effective as we might have thought. Cuba’s economy struggles today and the embargo, rather than bringing down Castro, has hurt the Cuban people and given the regime its anti-American reason d’etre.
Here’s the analogy that works for me. We’ve had 50 years of deadlock and non-engagement with Cuba, a country 90 miles from our shores, while halfway around the world, thanks originally to Nixon and Kissinger, we have engaged the Chinese and, I would argue, slowly, but steadily, helped bring a measure of the free market and openness in that communist country. We may have gone too far. The Chinese now threaten our economic leadership in the world. At the same time, we engage Vietnam, a country in which we fought a long and bloody war, with trade and diplomacy. We have an unsteady, but absolutely necessary relationship with Putin, the old KGB chief, in Russia. But nothing of any substance with Cuba.
Idaho and other Pacific Northwest conservatives, guys like Sen. Mike Crapo and Gov. Butch Otter, have long pushed for more trade opportunities with Cuba, the Castro brothers notwithstanding. In February 2008, Crapo signed a bipartisan letter to the Bush Administration, asking for a rethinking of U.S. policy in light of the resignation of Fidel Castro.
“Our current policy deprives the United States of influence in Cuba,” Crapo wrote, “including the opportunity to promote principles that advance democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. By restricting the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba, we limit contact and communication on the part of families, civil society, and government. Likewise, by restricting the ability of our farmers, ranchers, and businesses to trade with Cuba, the United States has made itself irrelevant in Cuba’s growing economy, allowing Cuba to build economic partnerships elsewhere.”
Cuba presents a “Nixon goes to China” moment. Relaxing trade restrictions and putting the countries on a path to more normal relations, requires conservative, trade-oriented Republicans, like Crapo, to keep pushing.
In a 2005 report, the libertarian-leaning CATO Institute, labeled our country’s Cuba policy “four decades of failure.” CATO’s trade policy director Daniel Griswold wrote: “The most powerful force for change in Cuba will not be more sanctions, but more daily interaction with free people bearing dollars and new ideas.” Indeed.
World-class cigars aside, Cuba can’t have much to sell to us. They import most of their food and manufactured goods. By contrast, we have everything the Cubans need from automobiles to high rise resort hotels, from Idaho potatoes to Washington apples. Continuing sanctions is simply a huge missed opportunity.
Jimmy Carter left office in 1981 with a 34% approval rating. His tenure remains controversial, but his standing in the history books aside, Carter has quietly and effectively been a model “ex-president.” His selfless work in Africa to end disease, his election monitoring around the world and his advocacy for women continue to be impressive. As one of the few Americans to engage at the highest levels with Cuba’s political elite, with dissidents, artists and religious leaders, he deserves a fair hearing on Cuba.
Pure south Florida politics aside, when Jimmy Carter and Mike Crapo are on the same page about Cuba, everyone should be listening.