On Sunday, Barack Obama is poised to become the first U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge to visit Cuba. He'll be accompanied by Sen. Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who has lobbied for ending the travel ban and trade embargo with Cuba since showing up in Washington, D.C. in 2001 as a congressman.
Flake traveled to Cuba in late January with a group put together by Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website (along with Reason TV and the print edition of Reason magazine).
Ever since doing missionary work in Namibia in the 1980s, Flake has been devoted to opening up trade, commerce, and travel among countries as a means for increasing human flourishing and contact. A hard-core free-marketer and libertarianish legislator—he used to head up the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix—Flake is that rare politician who is absolutely ready to cross party lines when a matter of principle requires it.
About a week ago, we published an extensive interview with Flake that I conducted while we in Havana. Here are five of the best quotes.
1. 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.]
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
Read columnist Ron Hart, who traveled with the Reason group, on "Cuba: the untaught lesson on the perils of socialism."
For more Cuba coverage at Reason, go here.