Isolationism never works.
That’s why President Obama was wise late last year to announce his intention to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba. The United States may open an embassy in Havana as soon as next month, when diplomats meet at the Summit of the Americas in Panama.
It’s about time. We need to talk and trade more with this island nation.
Cuba’s Communist government seized power more than five decades ago. Way back then, perhaps it made sense to try to cut Cuba off from the rest of the world. The regime in Havana, after all, is one of the world’s most oppressive. We couldn’t pretend as if nothing had happened.
Yet we’d be foolish to believe that our traditional approach to Cuba has done any good. Its intentions were admirable, but its results are disappointing. We certainly haven’t helped the Cuban people: They’re just as poor and oppressed as ever.
When I visited the island nation eight years ago as part of an agricultural delegation, I saw the poverty of the place with my own eyes. I also sensed the ingenuity of the people. Havana is full of classic cars, well maintained by expert mechanics, on account of the fact that nobody can afford to buy a new one. I felt transported back in time.
Yet our own policy of isolationism is what’s stuck in the past. If we care about Cuba’s fate—to say nothing of our own economic opportunity—we should move into the future with a policy of engagement.
Many Americans favor this new approach, according to a January survey by the Pew Research Center. Sixty-three percent approve of reestablishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, and 66 percent support an end to the trade embargo.
This would help American farmers. We’re already allowed to export a portion of what we grow and raise to Cuba. Under an exception to the embargo granted in 2000, we can sell food there. Soybeans, rice, and wheat are popular products, and Cuba is actually our fifth-largest foreign market for frozen chicken.
Yet we don’t sell nearly what we could, on account of a requirement that Cuba purchase our goods with cash rather than credit. By lifting this restriction and others, American farmers easily could export more than $1 billion in food each year. Last year, however, food sales dropped to $291 million from a high of $710 million in 2008, according to Reuters.
With 11 million people, Cuba represents a big and almost untapped market, just 90 miles from our shores. The U.S. Grains Council recently estimated that if our farmers dominated its markets the way they should, Cuba would be the 12th largest destination for American corn.
More trade would help America’s bottom line—and it also might improve living conditions in Cuba. Since Raul Castro succeeded his brother Fidel as president in 2008, reports The Economist, “Cubans enjoy more everyday freedoms.” This includes economic freedom: About 20 percent of the country’s workers are now employed in an emerging private sector.
There can be no political freedom without economic freedom—and so encouraging these positive steps may lead to even greater strides soon. New interactions with American businesses and greater availability of American products would give Cuba’s people a better taste of economic freedom, which leads to personal freedom.
People who lived in the Soviet Union during the Cold War testify to the importance of the black-market trade in blue jeans and Beatles albums. We should look forward to a time when Cuba’s people, living in freedom, reminisce about buying Major League Baseball jerseys and DVDs of “American Sniper,” as well as corn grown in Iowa and wheat from North Dakota.
Cuba’s government has tried to test our limits, with demands of financial compensation for economic losses suffered during the embargo and the transfer of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. These are plainly absurd. Cuba also seeks removal from the Department of State’s list of terrorism sponsors—a request that probably deserves an unbiased review.
Let’s keep on talking—and move on to trading more goods to create personal freedoms.
Tim Burrack raises corn, soybeans and pork on a NE Iowa family farm. He serves as Vice-Chairman and volunteers as a Board Member of Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).