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Earlier this summer the White House and Congress agreed on legislation that would permit sales of American food and medicine to Cuba for the first time in twenty-eight years. Some conservatives have opposed this deal because they think it will prop up one of the last remaining communist regimes. In reality, however, this legislation is a moral victory that should help achieve Pope John Paul II’s desire for Cuba to “open itself up to the world, and … the world to open itself up to Cuba.”

Everyone, except perhaps the National Council of Churches, knows it is true that Cuba has a terrible human-rights record. Americans are reluctant to appear to “reward” Fidel Castro, especially as it is also true that Mr. Castro’s communist policies have done more to harm his country’s economic situation than have United States sanctions. However, the recent and intellectually productive debate over trade with another country–China–has driven home the point that human-rights problems in totalitarian countries are not best addressed through sanctions and protectionism. Open trade and cultural exchange create greater opportunities for the monitoring of such societies by outsiders, even as increased prosperity empowers the victims of oppressive governments to stand up for their rights.

The hypocrisy in treating Cuba and China differently should be apparent. People on the left have argued against trade with China, while saying that trade with Cuba is a moral necessity. Those on the right contend that trade with China is crucial to improving human rights there, yet they refuse to contemplate the loosening of sanctions against Cuba. Any linkage of morality and economics requires a consistent application of the principle that trade and human rights reinforce each other. Sanctions are not only economically damaging, they are also politically counterproductive and morally dubious.

In my visits to both China and Cuba, I never encountered a citizen who hoped for less–as opposed to more–contact with the United States. No one ever came up to me and whispered, “Please retain sanctions against us. They help us fight against the human-rights violations of our government.” On the contrary, most victims of these harsh governments believe that dealing with United States companies, as well as having them set up shop in their countries, will actually have a liberating influence on the lives of ordinary people. Cubans and Chinese fervently desire to have more exchange with Americans at every level, whether it takes the form of tourism, trade, or technology.

While some politicians predict that trade with Cuba will make life worse for ordinary Cubans, it is hard to take such predictions too seriously. The Cuban people have endured great hardship for four decades, both from the oppressive policies of the Castro regime and from the effects of external sanctions. Opening trade relations–or, at the very least, permitting an inflow of food and medicine–actually holds out the prospect of breaking a long-running impasse. There are many issues to be worked out, of course. However, the fact remains that 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.

As president of the