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On Monday, President George W. Bush announced his Initiative for a New Cuba, a plan that retains the long running and controversial trade embargo against Cuba. This new approach contains some positive developments, such as greater facilitation of humanitarian aid and greater emphasis on the role of religious groups in providing direct assistance to the Cuban people. Other provisions in the new initiative call for the resumption of direct mail service and establishment of scholarship opportunities in the United States, sound policies with the promise of future fruit. Despite these positive developments in the president's Initiative for a New Cuba, however, it seems that the Bush administration's robust belief in the dynamic forces of free trade have taken a back seat to the demands of the domestic political cycle.

President Bush's challenge to Cuba to open up its political and economic system is a fair one. There is no doubt that the island nation of Cuba is more accurately described as Castro's gulag. Armando Valladares, a prominent Cuban human rights activist, has shared many, many stories about how his colleagues and friends are serving prison sentences for crimes such as “insulting symbols of the homeland” (better known as publicly displaying a Cuban flag) and “sedition,” a charge brought against a colleague of Mr. Valladares when she refused to allow government officials to fumigate her home with substances to which she was allergic. It is clear that this institutional disrespect for human rights, embodied in the political and economic systems of Cuba, must be challenged and changed. President Bush is right to do so. To demand, however, that these changes ought to occur before the trade embargo is lifted is a contradiction to the president's own clear convictions about the dynamic forces of free trade.

In an April 17, 2001, address, President Bush made the following remarks concerning his philosophical stance on free and open trade:

Open trade fuels the engines of economic growth that create new jobs and new income. It applies the power of markets to the needs of the poor. It spurs the process of economic and legal reform. It helps dismantle protectionist bureaucracies that stifle incentive and invite corruption. And open trade reinforces the habits of liberty that sustain democracy over the long term. (Emphasis added.)

I certainly concede that the president's remarks above serve as the philosophical foundation of the Bush administration's stance on trade policy. This very sound and optimistic articulation of the moral potential of free market forces, however, is noticeably absent in his remarks on the Initiative for a New Cuba. In addressing the Cuban situation, Mr. Bush offers a much more pessimistic view of the role of free market forces in bringing about the kind of change he rightly desires to see in Cuba:

Without major steps by Cuba to open up its political system and its economic system, trade with Cuba will not help the Cuban people. It will merely enrich Castro and his cronies and prop up their dictatorship. … Full normalization of relations with Cuba, diplomatic recognition, open trade, and a robust aid program will only be possible when Cuba has a new government that is fully democratic, when the rule of law is respected, and when the human rights of all Cubans are fully protected….

The difficulty with this more pessimistic view is that it leaves in place a disastrous embargo that continues to impose great hardship on Cuba's nearly ten million inhabitants – crippling their ability to improve their nation's situation, even if only in small ways. Lifting the trade embargo could quite possibly benefit Castro and his cronies personally, but only in the short run. Free and open trade has proven time and time again that, over the long run, its effects are too comprehensive for even the most totalitarian dictator to handle. If a human rights litmus test is to be a determining factor in U.S. free trade arrangements, then the Bush administration needs to carefully examine its dealings with all U.S. trade partners – some of whom commit human rights violations every bit as egregious as those of Castro's Cuba.

In reality, Cuba does not need further isolation from world markets and information. It needs the forces of free trade to begin to reverse the disastrous effects of Castro's revolution. The domestic political concerns that keep the trade embargo as a centerpiece of U.S. policy have also had the unintended effect of prolonging Castro's reign of terror. In seeking to isolate Castro's Cuba through the trade embargo, the U.S. has inadvertently given Castro a scapegoat, the imperial U.S., as the source of suffering for the Cuban people. Furthermore, under the current trade embargo, average Cubans have absolutely no chance at improving their lot in life, much less at becoming forces for democratic change in their country.

The Bush administration has been a faithful defender of the moral effects achieved by free market forces. For the sake of the average Cuban, we can only hope that the incremental developments introduced by the president's Initiative for a New Cuba will serve to further illustrate the benefits of free trade in alleviating Cuba's plight.


Father Phillip De Vous is the pastor of St. Joseph Parish, Crescent Springs, KY.  He is a weekly commentator on matters of church affairs, public policy on the Sonrise in the Morning Radio show, carried globally on the EWTN Radio Network. He served as the public policy manager of the Acton Institute from 2001-2003.