WASHINGTON — The most conspicuous absentee at the recent Summit of the Americas in Quebec was Cuba. On the issue of leaving Cuba out of any free-trade pact, President Bush is in full accord with his immediate predecessor - and for that matter, all of his other predecessors going back to John F. Kennedy.
With respect to Cuba, however, Mr. Bush is contradicting himself. There is no doubt about his devotion to free trade. This is one of the few issues of public policy on which his position is unassailable. The traditional argument by Bush, Bill Clinton, and other free-traders has been that trade promotes economic development and that economic development promotes democracy. This is what persuaded a reluctant House of Representatives to approve trade concessions to China last year.
Now, the argument has been reversed: Democracy is necessary to promote economic development. The declaration agreed to in Quebec went further: A nation that has a military coup or other undemocratic change in its government will not be allowed to participate in the summit's processes.
This is strikingly similar to the 1960s, when President Kennedy tried unsuccessfully to persuade Latin American governments to join him in nonrecognition of military regimes.
Cuba was first suspended from participation in the Organization of American States in 1961 at a special meeting of foreign ministers in Punta del Este, Uruguay. It took heavy arm-twisting by the United States to get the two-thirds vote required by OAS rules. Cuba and its defiant ruler have remained suspended to this day. It is time to end this.
There is conflicting historical evidence on the relationship between democracy and economic growth. In the United States and Western Europe, the takeoff of economic growth in the late 19th century was accompanied, in most countries, by both democratic political processes and gross social injustice.
Later, in the 20th century, it was through the political process that much of the injustice was corrected. Notable exceptions were Germany, Italy, and Japan, where the perversion of politics produced Nazism, fascism, and war.
However that may be, the US policy has been that Cuba should have no trade at all, free or otherwise. The US has enforced a boycott of the island for 40 years. More recently, the US has resorted to the use of sanctions against third countries, including our European allies, to force them to boycott trade with Cuba along with us. Nobody has argued that this will produce democracy.
The argument has been that the more miserable we can make the Cubans by preventing trade, the sooner they will adopt democracy - not because they want it, but because we want them to have it.
If Cuba wants trade, let it first hold free elections.
What this overlooks is that Cuba had a notable lack of democracy even before Fidel Castro. That, along with US Mafia penetration of Cuban society, was why Mr. Castro's two-bit rebellion blossomed into a full-blown revolution that has successfully resisted strenuous US efforts to dislodge it.
There is another reason for Cubans to be skeptical of the implied US promise that trade will follow elections. From the beginning of the Castro regime, the US has constantly raised the requirements for Cuba to win Washington's approval. First, Cubans had to stop interfering with other Latin American states. When that was done, they had to break their ties with the Soviet Union. When that was done - by the Soviet Union, not by Cuba - they had to adopt democracy. What, they might wonder, would they have to do next?
The Chinese are potentially a greater threat to American interests. They have nuclear weapons. When the Cubans had nuclear weapons, we went to the brink of war with the Soviet Union. The Chinese threaten our de facto ally Taiwan. The Cubans threaten nobody.
Even with respect to the rogue states of Libya, Iran, and Iraq, there is talk of lifting sanctions, though there is much less reason to do so with those states than with Cuba. But the rogue states, of course, have oil; Cuba has none.
From this, it might appear that there is a rule of thumb for setting priorities in American foreign policy:
The attention given to a country should decrease in proportion to its size and importance, and increase in proportion to its proximity.
Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor