Orphans of Trade

How to help all of Cuba's children.


It's fitting that the saga of Elian Gonzales, the young Cuban refugee rescued off the coast of Florida, unfolded coincidentally with December's World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. Like the WTO event, Elian's story –now playing out as a geopolitical custody battle–raises deep questions about international trade and economics more generally. The boy has lost his mother and is separated from his father, but his situation reminds us that all Cubans face loss on a daily basis: They are orphans of trade, suffering under policies that minimize the commercial activities that would make their lives richer both in goods and opportunities.

Late last year, Elian, his mother, and 12 other people boarded an overloaded 17-foot-long aluminum motorboat and surreptitiously set sail for America across famously treacherous, shark-filled waters. Within hours, the boat capsized, and eventually all but Elian and two other passengers drowned. That sane people are willing to take such risks suggests the desperation of life for many in Castro's Cuba (that the U.S. Coast Guard reported intercepting more than 1,200 similar "rafters" in 1999 only underscores the extent of the problems there).

Castro's economic policies are a prime mover in this tragedy. As one of Elian's Florida-based relatives suggested to the press, the lure of the U.S. to Cubans is closely linked to the greater economic opportunities here. If the courts rule that Elian can stay in the U.S., "he's going to have a future, a career, all the things he wouldn't have there," said the relative.

Despite his continual pronouncements that the 39-year-old U.S. trade embargo is the root of Cuba's misery, Castro has long pursued economic policies every bit as repressive as his political ones; his nation routinely scores at the very bottom in international rankings of economic and political freedom. The predictable result: Though free to deal with all but the U.S. and rich in potential, the Cuban economy produces virtually nothing of value to trade. Many basic items continue to be rationed in a world economy overstocked with commodities of every sort.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union–and the loss of subsidies that amounted to as much as $100 billion between 1961 and 1989–Castro did liberalize the economy somewhat. In the mid-1990s, for instance, he legalized use of U.S. dollars in certain sectors, allowed greater foreign investment, and made it easier for Cubans to register as "self-employed" and start their own businesses.

However, such entrepreneurial activity is by its nature disruptive and decentralizing, and the 73-year-old ruler has more recently reasserted economic controls. High taxes and fines have reduced the officially "self-employed" from about 200,000 in 1996 to around 133,000 today, and, as the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reports, fickle government policies have substantially slowed new foreign investment (down 50 percent between 1997 and 1998). Unsurprisingly, Political Risk Services, a consulting firm that gauges international investment conditions, now ranks Cuba's business climate in the bottom five of the 100 countries it analyzes.

Such restrictive policies led to 14 people–a 5-year-old boy among them–putting out to sea in an absurdly undersized vessel. They also led to the sort of bizarre dualism articulated by a Cuban in an interview about Elian's situation with an American journalist: "Maybe in the United States he'd have better economic conditions. Here, he'd be with the people who love him." Castro, it seems, has managed to create a world in which providing "better economic conditions" for children is seen as opposed to loving them. If so, then he has indeed succeeded in one of great goals of socialist revolutionaries, the creation of a "new man" untainted by bourgeois capitalist morality.

While Castro's economic policies are fundamentally responsible for his countrymen's poverty, the United States is not powerless to ameliorate the situation. Enacted in 1961, the American trade embargo with Cuba has failed spectacularly in its basic goal of undermining support for Castro's regime. If anything, it has simply given the dictator an easy way of explaining his failures and a ready justification for the next "special period" of austerity measures. As a spokesman for Human Rights Watch, which issued a scathing, 263-page indictment of Cuba's human rights abuses last year, put it, the embargo "has divided the international community and enabled Castro to justify repression on anti-imperialist grounds."

To its credit–and over opposition from a powerful Cuban-American presence in Congress–the Clinton administration last year eased certain elements of the embargo, allowing U.S. citizens to send up to $1,200 a year directly to Cubans, opening up some mail service and flights, permitting limited food and medical sales to nongovernmental groups, and encouraging cultural exchanges, including athletic competition and study-abroad programs. If the U.S. government actually wants to do "what's right" for Elian–and the other children of Cuba–it should work to finish the job and allow Americans to invest in the island.

The time seems right for such a reconsideration. Even before Elian's story became news, there was a flurry of interest in Cuba-U.S. relations and a renewed sense of the embargo's failure. In late November, Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), a one-time supporter of the embargo, openly violated it by traveling to Cuba as a private citizen. Upon his return, he proposed legislation lifting the ban on travel to Cuba, arguing, "If we want to create change in Cuba, let …average American citizens interface with Cubans." His thoughts mesh with those of two other recent U.S. travelers, Illinois Gov. George Ryan and U.S. Chamber of Commerce head Thomas J. Donohue. As Donohue put it, "We…have an opportunity to help Cuba move to the right side of history, even if Castro won't."

Ending the embargo–in part or in whole–would not topple Castro even as it would rob him of his great canard. Indeed, given the way Castro has structured other foreign investments, his regime would likely profit handsomely from any new business. Most foreign investors do not technically employ Cubans; rather, they pay a per-worker fee to a government organization which in turn pays workers a fraction of the amount.

Still, as China is discovering, increased economic activity and contact with the outside world are impossible to contain fully; even if Castro remained in power, he would be far less powerful in a country of wealthier people. Perhaps more important, ending the embargo would subversively–and indelibly–sketch the outlines of a post-Castro Cuba, one in which children need not leave their own shores to find a world of opportunity.