IS IT TIME to unplug the restrictions on trade and travel between the United States and Cuba? The prospect seems to tempt more people than ever, but it's a temptation to be resisted.
The New York Times reported last week that the Obama administration intends to expand opportunities for Americans to visit Cuba, loosening the rules under which academic, religious, and cultural groups are allowed to travel there. The new regulations are seen as a signal of presidential support for legislation sponsored by US Representative Collin Peterson of Minnesota that would repeal the travel limitations altogether.
The chorus calling for an end to the travel strictures and an increase in trade with Cuba is considerable. Peterson notes that his bill is backed by a coalition of more than 140 organizations, "including Human Rights Watch, the US Chamber of Commerce, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the American Farm Bureau Federation." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she has "always been a supporter of lifting the travel ban to Cuba." The Brookings Institute recommends "vastly" expanding US-Cuba travel and other "people-to-people contacts," calling them "a strategic tool to advance US policy objectives."
In an editorial, The Los Angeles Times backs the Peterson legislation not, it says, because the Castro regime deserves it, but because "engagement is more productive than confrontation." The Boston Globe goes further, repeating its call for ending the US embargo -- which it calls a "mindless" and "stultifying" relic of the Cold War -- once and for all.
Especially compelling is a recent letter to members of Congress supporting the legislation that was signed by 74 Cuban dissidents, among them the noted blogger Yoani Sánchez; Miriam Leiva, a co-founder of the opposition group Ladies in White; and Guillermo Farinas, who ended a 140-day hunger strike in July when the Castro regime agreed to free 52 prisoners of conscience.
"We share the opinion that the isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government," the letter said, "while any opening serves to inform and empower the Cuban people and helps to further strengthen our civil society."
But other Cuban dissidents take a very different view, and 494 of them signed a separate letter opposing any change in US policy that would reduce pressure on the regime.
"The tragedy of Cuba does not reside in the right to travel of a people who are already free, such as the American people," they wrote. "The main problem resides in the absence of liberty for Cubans. . . . At a moment such as this, to be benevolent with the dictatorship would mean solidarity with the oppressors of the Cuban nation." The signers of this letter included Ariel Sigler, a pro-democracy activist who spent seven years behind bars before being exiled from Cuba last month, and Reina Luis Tamayo, whose son Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after fasting for 82 days to protest the abuse of prisoners in Cuban jails.
Clearly, there are men and women of good will and moral authority on both sides of the Cuban embargo debate. And clearly the end of the cruel Castro reign, now going on 52 years, is a consummation devoutly to be wished. But will that day really be brought closer if Washington abandons the embargo and allows American tourists, exports, and cash to pour into Cuba?
The argument might be more plausible if Cuba were a Caribbean North Korea, cut off from contact with the world. It isn't. Ordinary Cubans may live with poverty and repression, but the government has turned the island into a major tourist attraction, complete with deluxe hotels and beach resorts. Some 2.4 million tourists visited Cuba last year, more than 800,000 of them Canadians. For that matter, tens of thousands of Americans make it to Cuba each year, despite the restrictions. Yet for all that exposure to foreign citizens, money, and ideas, the power of the Castro brothers is undiminished.
By the same token, if international commerce had the power to undo the regime, wouldn't it have been undone by now? The US embargo, after all, doesn't stop Cuba from trading with any other country in the world. Indeed, even with the "embargo," the United States is one of Cuba's top five trading partners.
Communism and Castro, not the US embargo, are what devastated Cuba's economy.
As long as the Castros maintain their stranglehold on the Cuban economy, enriching that economy enriches -- and entrenches -- them. The travel ban and embargo have not ended Cuba's misery, but lifting them unilaterally will only make that misery worse. Rewarding the dictators who keep Cubans in chains is not the way to set them free.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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