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The Department of Commerce: An Opportunity for Bill Richardson to Shine Once Again

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Former Democratic primary rival Gov. Bill Richardson, 61, has been chosen by the incoming Obama Administration to be the new Secretary of Commerce. The behemoth Department employs over 38,000 people and has a budget of nearly $7 billion, comparable to the GDP of a small state or country. It is the nation's premier demographics, economic data and statistics analyzing organization. It issues patents, trademarks and promotes American economic interests worldwide. According to its website, the Commerce Department's mission is "to foster, promote, and develop the foreign and domestic commerce" of the United States.

This has evolved, as a result of legislative and administrative additions, to encompass broadly the responsibility to foster, serve, and promote the Nation's economic development and technological advancement. The Department fulfills this mission by:

a. Participating with other Government agencies in the creation of national policy, through the President's Cabinet and its subdivisions.

b. Promoting and assisting international trade.

c. Strengthening the international economic position of the United States.

d. Promoting progressive domestic business policies and growth.

e. Improving comprehension and uses of the physical environment and its oceanic life.

f. Ensuring effective use and growth of the Nation's scientific and technical resources.

g. Acquiring, analyzing, and disseminating information regarding the Nation and the economy to help achieve increased social and economic benefit.

h. Assisting states, communities, and individuals with economic progress.

Richardson is undoubtedly well-qualified to run this organization and charter a new course for American business at home and abroad. He has served as President Clinton's Energy Secretary and UN ambassador. He has negotiated deftly with the counter-parties to some of America's most volatile relationships in Iraq, North Korea and Cuba. Richardson has the down-to-earth demeanor I came to admire when I lived in New Mexico, is persuasive and knows how to disagree without being disagreeable.

These attributes are in perfect sync with Obama's policy of talking to our adversaries. In March of this year, Richardson presciently ended his presidential bid and endorsed Barack Obama for president , while Hillary Clinton raged on. Her pending appointment as Obama's Secretary of State may have more to do with the expediency of rapprochement within the Democratic Party after a divisive and hurtful campaign than anything else. This writer believes that Bill Richardson would have made a better Secretary of State than Hillary Clinton. Some Richardson supporters feel let down that he wasn't chosen for State and would like him to remain as governor of New Mexico. They may not be aware that his term ends in 2010 and term limits prevent him from running again, limiting his options.

Richardson, like Obama, will inherit a mess when he assumes his new post. Bush acolyte Carlos Gutierrez has faithfully pursued policies and free trade agreements supported by the outgoing, discredited administration. Gross Domestic Product fell by 0.5% on an annualized basis in the third quarter of this year and will probably fall further this quarter. The economy is in a recession and panic grips financial markets. The real estate bubble has burst and there are 10,000 new foreclosure notices every day. Unemployment is creeping towards levels last seen during the recession of 1982. Sec. of Commerce Richardson's top priority will be to promote American goods and services abroad to soften the harsh blows of recession at home. Free trade agreements, executed properly, can help American business become more competitive while promoting American labor and environmental standards worldwide. The entire world wants and needs access to the American consumer. This gives the Commerce Department and the United States government as a whole great leverage over other countries. It would be foolish to abandon or to abuse this leverage.

Yet, this is precisely what the United States's unilateral embargo on Cuba does. The American prohibition on trade with Cuba, approaching its 50th anniversary, paralyzes America's biggest bargaining chip with the Cuban government while leaving American business out in the cold. Canadian, European and Chinese firms lobby their governments to grant trading credits to Cuba which are in turn used to buy goods from them. They never have to worry about competing with American companies and higher shipping costs are passed on to the Cuban government, which in turn raises prices on the goods that tourists and privileged Cubans may buy. The Cuban government, and by extension the Castro brothers and their successors, do not take a loss.

Estimates vary, but by all accounts, American companies lose billions of dollars in earnings and tens of thousands of American jobs are lost every year thanks to the Cuba embargo.

The 50-year-old argument from Miami, the last nine presidential administrations and Hillary Clinton is that the embargo is America's only leverage to force democratic change in Cuba. But because the change the United States seeks is the elimination of the Cuban government, the only way to meet American demands as a precondition to ending the embargo is to go into extinction. So the prerequisites to ending the embargo cannot be met and America is left without any leverage except the threat of armed force.

Outgoing Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez was born in Havana in 1953 and fled to the United States with his family in 1960 when Castro took over, a traumatic experience shared by many exiles who nurse their rage with dreams of revenge after all these years. He currently heads the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba and adamantly supports Bush's failed policies towards the Pearl of the Antilles. As a Republican, Cuban-American and Bush appointee, the Commerce Department's position on Cuba was a foregone conclusion. This is not a coincidence.

Long ago, American foreign policy towards Cuba was hijacked by special interest groups concentrated in Miami. Now that the winds of change are blowing in Washington, Bill Richardson has the perfect opportunity to invite Cuban economic czar Carlos Lage to Washington and inform him that change has come to policies that punish American businesses while creating the perfect scapegoat for economic mismanagement in Cuba. With regime change in Washington imminent, America is going to have a higher I.Q. to work with. No longer will the U.S. assist the Cuban government's monopoly over its economy by fencing off American commerce and influence.

Now is the time for Sec. Richardson to promote a free trade agreement with Cuba. Such a bold move would do more to bring structural economic and political change to Cuba than anything we have ever seen. Sec. Richardson's diplomatic skills would shine once more as American business prospers while American geopolitical interests are served once again by the stroke of his pen.

Daniel Bruno Sanz is a Chartered Market Technician.