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As the world waited for the war with Iraq to begin, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro was up to his old tricks. In early April, 75 Cuban dissidents – journalists, opposition party leaders, human rights advocates and pro-democracy activists – were arrested, tried and convicted for treason as part of a crackdown that began on March 18. Since this crackdown began, three have already been executed and others placed in prison. The recent round of crackdowns has not only brought a new wave of international criticism, as it rightly should have, but it has once again thrust the issue of what to do with Castro’s Cuba back to the forefront of American politics. Those concerned about the dignity and the freedom of the Cuban people should reconsider the impact of current American policy.

Since the early 1960s, the United States has imposed a tough trade embargo on Cuba. This policy has prevented any type of free trade to occur between the two countries except for a brief moment two years ago when certain humanitarian goods, such as medicine and a limited amount of food, were sent to Cuba. Recently, though, there has been much talk by members in both the Republican and Democratic parties of ending, or at least loosening, the embargo, bringing to an end to a policy more reflective of the by-gone era of the Cold War. However, in light of Castro’s recent defiance and the Bush Administration’s nervousness about alienating the Cuban American constituency in southern Florida – a constituency essential for his re-election efforts – there has been growing support for the embargos to be strictly enforced, in order to punish Castro and his regime for their current round of oppression. This policy of continual confrontation with the Castro regime does nothing for either the United States or Cuba, and does, in fact, cause more harm then good.

During the Cold War, the embargo was deemed necessary to contain the threat of communism so close to American borders, a concern that appeared to be very much justified by the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, since the fall of the Soviet Union and China’s abandonment of dogmatic Marxism, communism today appears to be all but dead – except, perhaps, in certain circles of academia. With the threat of communism gone, why do we continue to enforce such a repressive policy on a little island of about 11 million people, while pursuing liberal trade policies towards China – a massive nation of over 1 billion people that is methodically pursuing its clearly stated goals of regional political, military, and economic hegemony? Surely, it can’t be because Cuba presents a threat to the United States. Recent reports issued by the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency indicate that Cuba poses no military threat to the United States or any other country. So, why keep the embargo?

One argument for keeping the embargo in place is that if we were to ease up on the trade restrictions it would look like a reward for Fidel Castro’s bad behavior. No doubt, were the United States to lift the trade embargo Castro would most certainly claim it as a victory for him, a triumph over the evil and imperialistic United States. But his victory would most certainly be short-lived.

For decades Castro has used the embargo as an excuse for the failure of his communist revolution. The embargo has been his rhetorical trump card. No matter how bad things were, he could always blame the embargo and the United States as the cause of Cuba’s ills. As such, the embargo has assisted him in consolidating power. The lifting of the embargo would not be a victory for Castro, but would rather be the beginning of a long-awaited opportunity to watch him fall flat on his face. Why not force the Castro regime to contend with the force of economic liberty?

The opening up of Cuban trade would do much more than simply allow Castro to fail. More importantly, it would allow Cuba to succeed. By allowing a multitude of businesses to trade freely with Cuba, we would be doing what would appear to be the best thing that we could do: help to bring change to Cuba by the peaceful means of trade. With the advent of American goods onto the Cuban market, the Cuban government will finally be forced to compete with American goods and services side by side. When this occurs the inherent weaknesses of Castro’s system will become so painfully obvious that he will either be forced to make reforms, or risk losing what support he still enjoys. By inviting Castro into the market, the Bush administration would be directly and indirectly pressuring him to amend his ways. He would be compelled to undertake the necessary liberalizations needed to make Cuba competitive.

The former Soviet Union was defeated not through sanctions, but through its inability to compete with the tremendous power generated by the free-market forces of the West. Because of this inability they were forced to undergo political and economic reforms in response. There is no reason to believe that Cuba would not eventually follow this same road were they to be economically and politically engaged, rather than simply confronted.

In an April 2002 speech on trade-promotion, President Bush stated that “trade creates the habits of freedom” and begins to “create the expectations of democracy and demands for better democratic institutions. Societies that are open to commerce across their borders are more open to democracy within their borders.” If this is true, then why not put our money where our mouth is and engage Cuba with policies that will begin to “create the habits of freedom?” If we don’t, the cost of confrontational policies will be more crackdowns and even more desperate attempts by Castro to consolidate his power. These are costs measured in lives, not dollars.

Ryan Kelly is an intern at the Acton Institute's Center for Economic Personalism. He is a sophomore at Hope College in Holland Michigan.