Statute of limitations
The case for trading with Cuba
Our report on Cuba in this issue leads to several conclusions:
1. There is no economic or moral reason to continue the trade embargo against Cuba. The island has the resources and potential, as a 2006 Enterprise Florida report stated, to become “the largest and most economically viable of the Caribbean basin nations,” with Florida as the state best positioned to benefit from increased trade.
Meanwhile, we trade eagerly with countries, including communist states, where mayhem and repression have been greater and in some cases more recent. Nearly 2,000 Floridians died in Vietnam along with some 56,000 other Americans over the course of a 20-year war, but it took less than 20 years to develop a roadmap for reconciliation, and we normalized relations in 1995. Vietnam did some $1.6 billion in bilateral trade with Florida last year, and trade has flourished even though it’s not easy to do business there — construction permits require more than 100 days and 11 procedures; getting electricity requires 115 days. Nor has anyone been deterred by the state of human rights in Vietnam: “The government suppresses virtually all forms of political dissent, using a broad array of repressive measures. Freedom of expression, association and public assembly are tightly controlled. Religious activists are harassed, intimidated and imprisoned. The criminal justice system lacks independence and operates under the direction of the government and party,” reports Human Rights Watch.
That’s an accurate description of the state of affairs in Cuba as well. But in Cuba’s case, many in Florida, ranging from U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio to the Florida Chamber of Commerce to state legislators to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, use it as a moral argument for keeping the trade embargo. If Vietnam’s a worthy trade partner, why not Cuba?
Then there’s Peru, Florida’s eighth-biggest trading partner, where 70,000 people died, including many at the hands of government death squads, between 1980 and 2000. The country’s former president, along with several generals and security officials, are serving prison time for running the death squads. Today, torture by police, says Human Rights Watch, is “chronic,” and journalists are routinely fined and given suspended prison sentences for “defaming” public officials.
No one cites those circumstances as moral grounds to disqualify Peru as a business partner: Florida exported $2.8 billion to Peru last year, while importing $2.6 billion. The state’s Secretary of Commerce, Bill Johnson, is leading a trade mission to the country, which has had 15 consecutive years of growth, to further the “vast potential to expand Florida trade within this market,” according to Enterprise Florida.
2. The embargo will continue. One reason is that it’s already full of holes — the U.S., as we point out in our coverage, is Cuba’s fifth-biggest trading partner, accounting for nearly 10% of the company’s imports. Even with the embargo, we export more to Cuba than do Mexico, Canada, Italy, France or Germany, countries that don’t have an embargo. The U.S. designation of Cuba on its list of states that sponsor terrorism may be a more important structural barrier to economic development.
Another reason the embargo will continue is that Cuba’s potential is a long-term proposition. The economic possibilities, in the short run, simply aren’t lucrative enough to generate the political constituency it will take to kill the embargo. If Cuba punched anywhere near its weight economically — if, for example, it exported $5 billion, or had less debt or were more open to foreign investment without requiring the government as a partner, the embargo would disappear pretty quickly. And I bet that Rubio and the Florida chamber and Buckhorn would be discovering signs of entrepreneurial spirit all over the island. In the meantime, Cuba will continue to have more value as a football for politicians in the U.S. than it as an economic proposition for businesspeople.
3. At some point, probably after 2018, when Raul Castro leaves the presidency, the hard-line exile types will just get over the Castros. There ought to be a statute of limitations on anger. It’s hard on a body to choose to stay mad, and at some point the hard-liners need to choose a different legacy for themselves than unbroken devotion to grievances that date to 1959.
Douglas “Pete” Peterson, a former Floridian, flew a fighter jet in Vietnam. He was shot down, broke a bunch of bones when he landed in a tree and then was captured by villagers who stuck a rifle barrel in his mouth. He then spent 6½ years in various prisons in then-North Vietnam, was beaten, tortured and missed the birth and childhood of a son. Peterson served in Congress and became the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam in 1997 after the countries resumed diplomatic relations. Here’s what he told the USO’s magazine, On Patrol, in 2013: “I came home in ’73, and of course I was not a happy camper.
I recognized that I had lost a hell of a lot of my life to a cause that maybe the American people didn’t support. God, I was full of hate and anger and all of the other negative psychological attributes that people would have in that circumstance.
“Essentially, I just got a grip on that and said, ‘I don’t want to be angry anymore.’ If you’re angry and full of hate, you can’t do anything positive in the future. I didn’t want to be measured on having been sitting in a cell for 6½ years. I wanted to be measured on what I could contribute into the future. And if I was full of hate and anxiety, then that wasn’t going to happen.”