Bringing an end to the decades-old US-Cuba embargo is no longer just a noble but hopeless idea. Conditions have changed to the point where restoring normal economic ties would make for smart policy – and savvy politics.
Even as Cubans recover from hurricanes Gustav and Ike, their desire to end the embargo remains strong. In rejecting a modest initial offer of US aid on Sept. 4, Cuban President Raúl Castro called instead for the whole enchilada of normalized economic relations. The United States is equally resolute in its nearly 50-year-old opposition to the socialist dictatorship. As simply put by the CATO Institute, Washington's chief rationale for the embargo has been to "compel a democratic transformation" in Cuba.
Yet common ground exists. In broad terms, both sides want national security and economic opportunity. Now is the time to pursue those shared interests. Mutually beneficial opportunities in three areas – agricultural trade, energy development, and immigration – could provide the foundation for a postembargo relationship.
For years, US farmers have lobbied Congress – only somewhat successfully – to open Cuban markets, which are lucrative and feature low transportation costs. Both sides could realize benefits from greater liberalization: relaxed payment options for cash-strapped Cuba and the end of licenses and quotas for US farmers. Despite the embargo, the US is Cuba's largest supplier of food and its sixth-largest trading partner.
Secondly, direct US engagement could allow two of the nation's largest revenue generators, the Cuban nickel and sugar industries, to expand into more capital-intensive energy research through university and private-sector partnerships.
Most Cuban exports are currently destined for Canada, China, or the Netherlands as raw or lightly refined materials. Yet, with funding for technology and without the fear of embargo-based repercussions from the US, Cuban research opportunities and export products could have the potential to diversify.
By gaining the freedom and cooperative assistance to make this transition, Cuba could address its own energy dependence while leap-frogging years ahead on modernization. For starters, Cuba could explore the sugar-bioenergy market and the energy-related uses of nickel. Given the abundance of well-trained but under-employed Cuban engineers, the ingredients for a perfect storm of innovation are already present.
For its part, by ending the embargo, the US simultaneously gains security through stability in Cuba. More important, by investing in the future prototype for emerging markets – a 42,803-square-mile green energy and technology lab called Cuba – America gains a dedicated partner in the search for energy independence.
Finally, a key component of renewing relations is ending illicit emigration. At issue is the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, amended in 1995. It encourages disaffected Cubans to risk their lives for the reward of an expedited path to US citizenship upon reaching American soil. They also receive immediate access to a work permit and the ability to acquire residency in one year. A 2002 article from The Miami Herald reported that 1 in 20 Cubans being smuggled to the shores of the United States dies in the attempt. Meanwhile, smugglers collect up to $10,000 a person.
Retiring the "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy and normalizing immigration laws could stop the Cuban brain drain, end charges of a US immigration double standard, and save hundreds of millions of dollars for the US taxpayers who must fund four different agencies to implement this policy.
Supporters of the embargo say it serves as an important symbolic protest of Cuba's deplorable human rights record and its lack of political, civil, and economic freedoms. Yet constructive engagement with the reform-ready regime of Mr. Castro – utilizing a framework based on mutual economic interests similar to US-China relations – could give observers more cause for optimism. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's willingness to speak openly with Newsweek/CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria last month about democratization is evidence of progress.
While phasing out the Cuban embargo won't render a quick solution to fractured US-Cuba relations or end the evaporation of esteem the US is suffering throughout Latin America, it would mark a significant achievement of hemispheric leadership on a divisive issue. By ending the embargo, the US may learn that under the right circumstances, the soft power of diplomacy proves more effective in reshaping America's perception in Latin America than the hard power of economic isolation ever did.