When Barack Obama visits Cuba in late March, he'll be the first U.S. president to do so in nearly a century.
He'll also be following in the footsteps of Jeff Flake, the Republican senator from Arizona, who has been traveling to Cuba since 2001, when he first arrived in Washington as a congressman.
Flake is no admirer of the Castro regime. His interest in normalizing relations stems from his experiences in Namibia as a Mormon missionary and his belief that Americans should generally be free to go where they want and trade with whom they want. Prior to coming to Congress, Flake was executive director of a group called Foundation for Democracy, which worked to re-establish U.S. trade relations with Namibia after the end of apartheid in the early 1990s. He also led Arizona's Goldwater Institute, an influential free-market think tank based in Phoenix.
Arguably the most persistent member of Congress when it comes to lifting the travel ban to Cuba and questioning the wisdom of the decades-old embargo on trade with the country, Flake has long said that Americans should be free to see for themselves the stunted fruit of socialist policy. He tells the story of meeting with Lech Walesa, the great activist who challenged Soviet domination of Poland. "I have no idea," Walesa complained, "why you guys have a museum of socialism 90 miles from your shore and you won't let anybody visit it."
In late January, Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website, took a group of supporters to Havana. Flake and his wife Cheryl met us there and the senator sat for an hour-long interview conducted by Reason's Nick Gillespie.
In a wide-ranging and freewheeling conversation, Flake discusses why he backs President Obama's Cuba policy, what sort of restitution needs to be made to people who lost property, and why the Cuban government has allowed increasing numbers of residents to enter the private sector. By Flake's estimate, about 25 percent of the Cuban work force is now in the private sector, a development which is destabilizing government control of other areas of life as well. He also talks about the disaster that was the recent budget deal in Washington, why the Republicans will need to change their position on immigration, and what the appearance of highlights in the hair of Cuban women means for the post-Castro future of the island.
Reason: As a starting point, could you tell us a little bit about your interest in normalizing relations with Cuba? Where does that come from and how do you feel about how things have preceded over the past year, when the Obama administration re-established diplomatic communications?
Flake: I often say half-jokingly that I took a poll among Cuban-Americans in Arizona about my policy and both of them said, "Move right ahead, we like what you're doing!"
I was the director of a foundation in Namibia, a country that was becoming independent from South Africa in 1989 and 1990. [My wife] Cheryl and I were there. We spent a year in Namibia and the country gained its independence only after a deal was struck to get the Cubans out of Angola. Cuban troops had been in [nearby] Angola. They were exporting the revolution and acting as a client state of the Soviet Union at that time. So the Cuban issue has kind of been on the periphery for quite a while for me.
But it always bothered me that as a Republican we preach the gospel of contact and commerce and trade and travel, yet with Cuba we turn around and say, "No, it's not going to work there." It just seemed to be a glaring inconsistency in our foreign policy. And in my first race, the Elian Gonzalez saga was unfolding during my campaign, and so there was a lot of talk and rhetoric at that time. [Editor's note: Gonzalez was the young son of a woman who fled Cuba and become embroiled in an international custody struggle in 2000; the Clinton administration eventually sent him back to Cuba. For more, go here.]
I committed that when I would get to Congress, I would introduce a bill immediately to lift the travel ban. When [the Cuban government] was exporting revolution around, there was a good case for a trade embargo, but there was never a good case in my view for an outright travel ban. Or having Cuba being really the only country in the world where your government tells you you can't go.
Reason: Does the argument that commerce and travel allow for influence hold up? For instance, did U.S. sanctions help push South Africa into what ultimately was a peaceful transition? In Cuba, we're the only country that doesn't trade with Cuba. Has our embargo been effective?
Flake: I've always believed that multilateral sanctions sometimes work, but unilateral sanctions rarely, if ever, do. And that's what we've had here in Cuba. In South Africa, it wasn't effective until they were multilateral and they did prod South Africa, in my view. But then you have to figure out what happens on the other side. Namibia was included in the sanctions imposed on South Africa by virtue of its governance by South Africa. When South Africa went through its transition, we lifted the sanctions on South Africa. But a lot of state and local governments were imposing their own sanctions on Namibia by name. So even when Namibia became independent and free of South Africa, those sanctions were still on the books.
One of the things that I did when I got back was going around the country to convince state and local governments this Namibia was a separate, independent country now [and that the sanctions needed to end]. We engage often in Washington in this kind of drive-by diplomacy where in the heat of the moment we'll impose economic sanctions, and then we'll forget about it. Poor countries are saddled with the legacy of it. And that's not fair.
In terms of Cuba, our sanctions haven't been effective. They've been very leaky, if you will. European countries trade and we continue to trade—we've traded agricultural goods for a decade and half now. What [the embargo and travel ban] has done is to provide the Castro regime a very convenient scapegoat for the failures of socialism. It's always David-and-Goliath syndrome. They've been able to point at us and say, "That's the reason that socialism doesn't work."
Reason: Why is Cuba poor, especially if it can trade with the world?
Flake: Cuba is poor because they have a bankrupt socialist system here. Full stop.
I think we Americans should come here now to help the people through trade and travel and that those things will nudge Cuba in a more-free direction. But I've also always felt that Americans need to see what happens when government controls not just the commanding heights of the economy, but the entire economy. It's a sobering experience.
I was in Poland several years ago, and Lech Walesa was there. All of the sudden, just out of the blue, he brought up Cuba. And he said, "I have no idea why you guys have a museum of socialism 90 miles from your shore and you won't let anybody visit it." He found it unbelievable that we would deny Americans that wake-up call.
Some people will come here—the Kevin Costners, the Oliver Stones—and laud Fidel Castro for the successes of the Cuban revolution. I've always thought if you let Bob from Peoria come down here, he'll say, "This is a mess!" Ordinary Americans will say, "This doesn't work. Why would I want to nudge our country more in this direction of government control of the economy?"
And so it's been kind of a dual reason for me to push for Americans to come here. Cubans will tout their three successes: healthcare, education, and science. I think Americans would come down here and see the three failures of socialism: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The more people who can come here and see that, the better it is for Cubans and Americans.
Reason: How do you deal with authoritarian regimes in a morally responsible way? The embargo started after the Cuban government expropriated American properties. Can you walk us through the restitution process, or what happens under international law if we actually lift the embargo?
Flake: When it comes to dealing with regimes, it is always a balancing act. You have to consider as a politician how it would be viewed. As I mentioned, Cheryl and I have traveling down here since 2001. Our first visit was the weekend right before 9/11. And I made it a point, though virtually every delegation that came down here would meet with Fidel Castro late into the evening, I said I never will. So when he sent for me at the hotel a few times saying he was ready to meet, I just didn't go. At one time I thought maybe it would be even more of a slight if Cheryl went, so Cheryl did. She endured three, four, five hours of Fidel's speech.
You don't want a picture with Fidel Castro showing up in your campaign sometime, which it probably will. But part of the reason too is if I have free time here, I have other things I want to do rather than sit down and listen to a lecture by Fidel Castro. My first visit here, when we met with a foreign minister, I said to him at that time, "I'm introducing legislation to lift the travel ban and if Cuba doesn't improve its human rights record and move towards democracy, we're going to lift the whole embargo."
That's how I felt all the time. These aren't sanctions on Cubans, these are sanctions on Americans. When others who I normally agree with—Marco Rubio and others—say these latest moves by the president are a concession to the Castros or to the regime, they're wrong. It's not a concession to allow your own population to travel. That's an expression of freedom. That's how I've always viewed it. I always thought if you want to punish the Castros, then make them deal with spring break. That's the fitting punishment.
Reason: What about the restitution question—what do we do with an episode in relatively recent history where people's property was taken without compensation? There are many people who seem to say that we can have nothing to do with Cuba until the Castro brothers are dead and buried.
Flake: I have the utmost sympathy for [people who fled the revolution and lost everything]. There wasn't great love for the Batista regime here and not many people in Cuba pine for those old times. But if you can imagine being here in 1959 and seeing Castro roll in, turn toward the Soviet Union, and then expropriate property—or imprison or kill your parents—that is a very good reason for a long grudge, and I do understand that. I don't want to minimize that at all.
But at some point you have say, "What are our policies doing? Are they helping that regime stay in power? Are we giving them a convenient excuse? Is it more likely that we can settle some of these property claims under a different regime or in a different way?" I think there is. We've commissioned some tribunals to look at what the property claims are and the best we can come to is that it amounted to about $1.6 billion. With interest, that would be about an $8 billion claim now. Most of those claims are tied up with about five or six companies—a bunch of sugar companies and then ITT, [mining compnay] Freeport McMoran, and some others.
About 5,000 of those claims could be settled for about $200 million. So there are ways to go about it, and there are some very interesting things happening right now in Havana. Starwood Hotels owns what was first ITT and then Sheraton, and so they have an outstanding claim against the Cuban government. They are looking to do a hotel deal down here where it would put an American brand and manage hotels down here. In exchange, if they like that deal well enough, they will relinquish their claim that they have.
Some of the big companies that hold a lot of these claims are looking at ways to actually relinquish those claims and get that settled. As far as the smaller claims that individuals have, those will be thornier and tougher but they can ultimately be done. My view is that if we want a resolution to those issues, it's better done when we have diplomatic relations like we do now, when we've gone through some kind of transition, and when the Cuban government and others have some kind of revenue to give effect to that.
Reason: Talk a little bit more about the larger role of free trade in increasing human flourishing. As a member of the GOP, are you worried by a move away from free trade and immigration by your colleagues? Republicans used to embrace trade and more-open borders but now many are saying things like, "We need to stop trade with China. We need to regulate trade with China more. We need to stop people, including refugees from war-torn areas from coming into the United States."
Flake: It is a very, very disturbing trend that we're seeing in the Republican Party against free trade. It's always been there but usually confined to a few isolated members, the Jeff Sessions of the world and others, but now it seems to be spreading. Obviously, it's being given voice by people like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, who has come out saying that he would not favor TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We passed TPA (trade promotion authority), or fast-track authority last year, and about 85 percent of the votes in favor were Republicans. That was significant. I don't know if we could [do] that today. And now, going and having to pass TPP with an up or down vote—I hope we get it this year.
Big issues like entitlement reform are more easily done—or only done—if you have divided government. Trade is one of those. If Republicans take control of the White House, which I want them to, it's going to be difficult to act in some areas, because one party doesn't want to take all the political risk that comes with the territory. Trade is starting to be put in that category. So it's extremely concerning.
Reason: Talk about immigration. Being anti-immigration is almost taking the place of abortion as the issue that defines the Republican Party and conservative politics. Do you feel that it's accurate to say the Republican Party is becoming very hostile towards immigration?
Flake: It is troubling and my sense on immigration is not just that Republicans risk alienating the largest-growing demographic, the Hispanic population, in the country, but that we're a serious national party and we need to have a serious policy. Simply saying we're going to build a wall and deport everybody who's here is not a serious policy.
I was an unapologetic member of the Gang of Eight. I believe that we've got to have increased border control, certainly. It's a national security issue, not just an economic issue or anything else. But having said that, you can't just stop there. We've got some 11 million people who live in the country illegally, and the notion that we're simply going to deport them all or that they will self-deport is farcical. It is not going to happen. My own view is that if somebody is going to be here for 20 or 30 years of their life, they ought to have the rights and responsibilities of [native-born residents]. Citizenship ought to be offered down the road. I'm not a fan of amnesty. Amnesty is, in my view, an unconditional pardon for a breach of law. But if somebody can go through several steps—under the Gang of Eight bill that was a 10-year period with background checks, paying back taxes, and you name it—then it's possible to become regularized.
I am concerned about where we are as a party. After the last election, if you remember, virtually everyone was saying we've got to reevaluate. Sean Hannity stood up the next day and said we need comprehensive immigration reform. Now we're back the other way, where people who were for legalization (if not citizenship), are saying, "No, I never supported that."
There is a Cuba angle here, a big one. Some 50,000 Cubans just crossed the Texas/Mexico border last year. It'll be more this year, coming into Arizona as well. It's not just the ones getting on a raft from [the island]. Unlike a Mexican or a Guatemalan, say, when Cubans come across the border, they're given a shortcut to a green card within a year and then citizenship can come within five years. No denials, no need to prove economic hardship, or anything else. It's just how the Cuban Adjustment Act is. That's going to have to be revisited and just about everybody recognizes that.
Reason: By all accounts, including the U.S. government's, net migration from Mexico is now negative. Why is that and what does it say about any government's ability to control borders short of truly totalitarian measures? Do you worry about the U.S. acceptance of refugees from Syria and elsewhere?
Flake: It's true that there's net out-migration among the Mexican population. That's due to a couple things. One is the economy is doing better in Mexico. Mexico will graduate in raw numbers, not as a percentage of population, more engineers this year than the United States will. And the birthrate in Mexico has dropped substantially. It's down to about 2.1, not far off where the U.S. is, right around replacement level. And that's happened in just a couple of decades. So all the talk by politicians about the "hordes" of Mexicans crossing the border needs to be updated.
There are people still coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador because of other issues there and those countries have been pretty ineffective [at securing the safety and prosperity of their citizens]. About 42 percent of illegals in the country don't enter the country illegally. They came across the border, or to an airport, or whatever on a student visa or a tourist visa and have simply overstayed. So the notion that we're simply going to solve it at the border is not very realistic. I understand heightened fears about immigration but we have about 300 million visits—not visitors, some come multiple times—a year to the United States. Our economy depends on that. It's something that is a good thing.
For a country to say—for Donald Trump to say—that we can just build a wall that will keep everyone out is not realistic. We have to find other ways to deal with this.
On the Syrian refugee question, we should be so lucky that everybody who arrives in the United States is screened as well as a Syrian refugee. That's a pretty thorough vetting process compared with some of the other visa waiver categories. Someone who wants to come to the United States as a refugee is referred through the UNHCR [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], a U.N. organization that deals with that. For a period of a year or so, they check, they do interviews. Then there are U.S. procedures. No system is perfect, but anybody who comes here has gone through vetting for between 18 and 24 months, by the U.N. and by the United States. So there is a lot more that goes into it than some people assume.
My view is that if you're ISIS, and you're saying, "We're going to get some cell planted in the United States and we're going to use the refugee program," [going through the refugee system is] probably not a very smart move. It's very long. It's much, much, much, easier to find somebody in France who is a French citizen and thus has access to the visa waiver program and could simply come over. Sometimes we worry a lot about the wrong things or about things that don't measure up.
Reason: Virtually every immigration reform plan is tied to some version of a federally administered worker-verification program in which employees are vetted by the government. Apart from serious issues about error rates and other costs, isn't this antithetical to so much of our country's ideals?
Flake: What you're talking about is some form of E-verify where we can quickly ascertain whether somebody is here on a legal visa that allows them to work. I think we're going to have to have some version of that which works better than the current system. But I can't see a time where we simply have a system of labor needs that are met without some kind of verification. It really can only be the federal government that is involved there or oversees it. We've just got to do a better job of doing it and we're not even close to being right there with technology.
Reason: Let's turn things over to the audience.
Audience member: I appreciate your comment about divided government being an environment where effective change and compromise can happen. But what did you get in return for busting the sequester caps on spending and adding $80 billion in new spending over the next couple of years?
Flake: In terms of the budget and where we are, I can't argue much. I didn't vote for the omnibus. I don't think it was a good deal. If you want to know what keeps me up at night more than anything—and there are plenty of threats out there—it's waking up some morning and having the markets already decided that we're not going to buy your debt anymore, or we're only going to buy it at a premium and interest rates are going to have to go up.
When that happens, then virtually all of our discretionary or non-military discretionary spending goes just to service the debt and then we are Japan. It takes a generation to grow out of where we are because you have to impose austerity programs and your options are very limited at that point.
I was in Congress between 2000 and 2006 when we had Republicans controlling both chambers and the White House. I can tell you that whenever entitlement spending or social security reform came up, you'd hear, "We've got a midterm election just around the corner, we're not going to take that risk." And if you look over the past couple of decades, all of the serious budget agreements—Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, the sequester, and others—come when there has been divided government where both parties have said we'll share the risk and jump.
The problem is this president has been particularly unwilling to go there. This Congress hasn't been too anxious to agree with this president either. If I look at the field, the one person on the Democratic side who in my view would probably make a grand bargain in terms of taxes and overall spending is probably Joe Biden. Joe was in the Senate for 30 years. He's the one that negotiated the extension of the Bush tax cuts and the Democrats haven't sent him to the negotiating table since. That's the problem. But somebody like Biden would do that deal. I'm not sure if the others would. But I do know some things like that are easier with divided government. It's counter-intuitive, but that's the case.
Audience member: Were there any quid pro quos that we're going to read about in six months or a year that were stuck in the spending bill?
Flake: No, and we haven't done anything to stop the debt. At some point, with a $19-trillion debt and deficits of $500 million for a few years and then ones going up over $1 trillion again, we're going to get [to the place where we need a grand bargain]. I would just like to strike the deal when we still have some flexibility as to how we do it instead of having the market simply impose it on us. We've been given a reprieve over the past several years because we're still the best house in a bad neighborhood around the world in terms of finances. That won't last forever, it can't. That's my big worry. That's what concerns me, whether we have a Republican in the White House or a Democrat, we have to strike that big deal at some point.
Matt Welch: You've been coming to Cuba since 2001. Can you give your impression of trend lines here. Are things loosening up? We went to an art gallery last night that had work critical of Castro. That would have been inconceivable when I was here 18 years ago. Has there been a trend towards openness and how would you describe the prosperity or lack thereof that you have witnessed in the last 16 years?
Flake: In the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union pulled out, Cuba went through what they call their "special period," where the economy was as bad as it ever was—and they've had some periods of real toughness. When you look at the average Cuban making $20 a month today, you think, "How much worse could it get?" It was worse. In the early '90s, it was tough. For those who dream that Cuba is just a few months away from revolt, it's not even close now to where it was in the early '90s.
As the government of Cuba has faced those special periods, they have loosened controls. They have allowed more private businesses like the restaurants we were in last night, and then as the economy has improved they've pulled back. In the early 2000s, they significantly pulled back and took away a lot of people's licenses to do business and everything else. Now you get the sense, in terms of when we were coming before and now, that these changes that have been made are pretty irreversible.
And I would point towards the biggest change in terms of U.S. policy that's been made over the past couple of decades was President Obama's agreement to allow Cuban-Americans to come down to Cuba as much as they want. Prior to 2009, if you were a Cuban-American, you could come once every three years. And so if your parents were in Cuba and you were in Miami, and your mother died you had to say, "Do I go to her funeral or do I wait and go to my father's funeral?" It was awful. I mean morally, it was a terrible thing we did, denying Cuban-Americans their right to come back here. President Obama lifted those restrictions. And so Cuban-American travel just doubled, tripled, quadrupled, quintupled, within a year. Those who resisted that policy in Miami, those who liked the current policy, were quickly faced with, "Well, my constituents like that policy."
The president also lifted the cap significantly on remittances, allowing Cubans to invest with their families here. That, combined with some changes by the Cuban government, especially allowing new classes of business that can be in the private sector, have lead to a real big change here. You have about 25 percent of Cubans who work fully in the private sector: a private restaurant, a B&B. Airbnb opened up here last February. Within two months, they had 2,500 listings. The average Airbnb contract for somebody staying down here is $250. The average waiter or waitress in a private restaurant like we visited yesterday and the day before will make between $40 and $60 a day. The average Cuban working for the state earns $20 or $25 a month.
The big change is the number of Cubans being able to not have to rely on government and therefore can hold their government more accountable. I would say that we've passed the point of no return. For the government to now come in and try to clamp down, that would be met with a lot more pressure and resistance. I'm not talking military force or anything else, but people just wouldn't take it anymore. Because it's easier for Cubans to leave the country, they can leave, and they are.
The difficulty that the Cuban government is facing, particularly the new leadership, they've kind of picked their next president after Raul. His name is Miguel Diaz-Canel. He's young—he's in his 50s. He's not one of the old Fidelistas, but his job is to try to convince younger Cubans that there's a reason to stay here. But he's also got to convince Raul and the old Fidelistas that he's not going to move too fast. So it's a real tough job he has if he wants to assume that mantle.
But there have been big changes since we started coming here in 2001. As far as anecdotal impressions, Cheryl notes that there's certainly more discretionary income, judging from the way women have more highlights in their hair and the clothes they wear. She notices more of those things than I do, I guess.
Reason: Thank you, Senator Flake.