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An agreement between the White House and the Congress will mean that American producers of food will be permitted to sell their products to Cuba for the first time in 28 years. Despite the severe restrictions on the sales (Cuban still can't export and banks can't be involved in advancing credits), this is a moral victory and an essential step toward achieving John Paul II's desire for Cuba to “open itself up to the world, and ... the world to open itself up to Cuba.”

But for Cold War history, it would be impossible to understand why the U.S. has, for so long, conducted such an inhumane policy in its relations with Cuba. It's true that Cuba still has a terrible human rights policy, and Americans are reluctant to appear to be “rewarding” Castro for anything. It's also true that Castro's own economic policies have done more to harm his country's economic prospects than U.S. sanctions.

However, the recent debate over China trade (one of the most intellectually productive in my political memory) drove home the point that serious problems with human rights are not effectively addressed through sanctions and protectionism. Open trade and vibrant cultural exchange create opportunities for greater monitoring by outsiders, even as a more prosperous society empowers the victims of oppressive governments to stand up to human rights abuses.

The hypocrisy involved in treating Cuba and China differently is evident on all sides. People from the left side of the political spectrum have argued against trade with China but rightly say trade with Cuba is a moral necessity. People on the right side of the spectrum rightly say trade with China was crucial to human rights also claim that loosening sanctions on Cuba shouldn't be contemplated. Just about the only consistent voice in this debate so far has been those of protectionists and diehard Cold Warriors who oppose trade with both countries.

But a union of morality and economics requires a consistent application of the principle that trade and human rights mutually reinforce each other. Sanctions are not only economically damaging and politically counterproductive; they are morally dubious, as well.

In my visits to both China and Cuba, I never encountered a single citizen who hoped for less as versus more contact with the U.S. No one ever said to me anything on the order of “please retain sanctions against us; it is helping us fight against human rights violations inflicted by our government.”

On the contrary, the victims of these troublesome governments believe that having U.S. companies import and export, setting up shop in their countries, and gaining new markets for their products, will increase contact and opportunity for themselves. To have more exchange with Americans at every level, whether it is through tourism or trade or technological exchange, is what these people desire.

This case was made by the White House and Congress concerning China, but Cuba is said to be a different case. Castro is a sworn enemy of the U.S., and far from making overtures to us, he continues to vilify America, and particularly the exiled community in Cuba that once suffered so much at his hands. Where is the extended hand of friendship that we saw from the Chinese government?

True, Castro has said that he wants the sanctions repealed, but he knows as much as anyone that continuing to use the U.S. as a scapegoat for the failure of his communist system is very much in his interest. But why are the Cuban exiles in Florida so passionately opposed to the idea? For them, it is a matter of history and justice. This man looted their property and destroyed their lives, so this is wholly understandable.

But their case is less persuasive once you look at the practicalities. For example Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-FL, argues that sanctions “constitute decisive leverage for a democratic transition to take place once Castro is gone from the scene”; trade with the U.S. could mean that “the Cuban people may be condemned to decades more of oppression.”

Waiting for a foreign leader to die while we refuse any economic contact is not a policy consistent with human rights. Sanctions are not hurting Castro personally in any case. As for dictating political events in a post-Castro Cuba, don't sanctions run the risk of fostering such a level of resentment among Cubans that our influence down the road will be nil?

It's hard to take too seriously the prediction that trade would make matters worse. After all, the Cuban people have been condemned to oppression for four decades under double despotism: communism internally and sanctions externally. Opening trade relations – or at the very least permitting an inflow of food and medicine – actually hold out the prospect of breaking a decades-old impasse.

Others say that because Castro controls the economy, that trade with Cuba can only benefit the government and not the people. But if that were true, the Cuban people oppressed by communism would surely be the first to favor less trade. To repeat: from my visits there, and after close contact with a wide variety of people there, I have never heard any Cuban say sanctions were a help.

There are many issues to be worked out, of course. Some 5,000 American companies and individuals have claims for property amounting to $6 billion seized after 1959. In justice, these claims should be addressed. But are they more likely to be settled with or without greater economic contacts with the country? In Cuba, as in China, free trade gives hope to the people who suffer the most from governments that violate human rights.

Rev. Robert A. Sirico received his Master of Divinity degree from the Catholic University of America following undergraduate study at the University of Southern California and the University of London.  During his studies and early ministry, he experienced a growing concern over the lack of training religious studies students receive in fundamental economic principles, leaving them poorly equipped to understand and address today's social problems.  As a result of these concerns, Fr. Sirico co-founded the Acton Institute with Kris Alan Mauren in 1990.