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Dump the Cuban Embargo

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I'm in the U.S. Airways Shuttle Terminal at La Guardia. It's a late night in October, and I run into a senior economic official from the Clinton administration. We catch up on friends, and I tell him that I'm working on a column about the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba and what a disaster it's been -- for Cuba and for the United States. The official says this to me: "If someone had told supporters of the embargo that after nearly 50 years, the Soviet Union would be gone; Communism would be gone from Eastern Europe; China, while Communist-controlled, would have 300 McDonald's and thriving capitalism; that Cuba would be one of the only Marxist governments left; and, oh, that Castro would still be alive, they might have thought differently."

The American embargo of Cuba is one of those things that most of the political elite in Washington privately acknowledge as a failure. Publicly, they defend it because of fears that the Cuban American community, famously concentrated in presidentially pivotal Florida, will beat the tar out of them. In October, President Bush reiterated his commitment to it in a speech to Cuban dissidents, and it's no wonder that none of the leading presidential candidates has called for abolishing the embargo, initiated in 1960 as Fidel Castro's regime began confiscating U.S. assets. During the past 47 years, the embargo has evolved into a slew of restrictions on travel and trade, all designed to bring down Castro. And it's worked so well!

It's time to end the embargo -- unilaterally and completely. The policy has been useless as a tool for cudgeling Castro, and it is hindering opportunities for American industries from travel to banking to agriculture, which is why there's no shortage of U.S. business groups lobbying to ease it. Far from hurting the deplorable Communist regime, the embargo has only given Castro an excuse to rail against Uncle Sam, both to his own people and to the world. Every year, Cuba asks the United Nations for a vote lifting the embargo. What happens? We usually end up with a couple of superpowers like Palau and the Marshall Islands standing with us. Last year, the vote was 183 to 4. The embargo makes us look like an arrogant bully.

Sure, in the early days of the cold war, we persuaded other countries to help us isolate Castro by severing trade ties with him. But in the ensuing years, they've all fallen away. That's why you can buy and smoke a fine Habana Cohiba pretty much anywhere but in the U.S.  sanctions are hard enough to enforce when the world agrees on them, as was the case with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. With Cuba, it's an embargo of one, which is like a lone guy in Times Square on New Year's Eve grumpily refusing to put on a party hat.

While we grouse, the world sells. Italian telecoms, French hotels, and Korean automakers are more than happy to trade with an island 90 miles off our shores. Of course, Cuba is not a huge market: The island is the size of Pennsylvania, but its population is only 11 million and its G.D.P. a mere $46 billion. By comparison, Vietnam, the last Communist country with which we ended a dubious embargo, is 85 million strong, with a G.D.P. of $262 billion. Selling to Cuba wouldn't slash our trade deficit, but it wouldn't hurt us either.

Aside from hindering American business, the policy also keeps us from having any political influence over the country, says my old friend Julia Sweig, who is the foremost Cuba expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. She's been to Cuba nearly 30 times and has escorted the likes of the Blackstone Group's Pete Peterson to meet with Castro. Reading her work and talking with her shaped my thinking for this piece. "We're shooting ourselves in the foot," she says near her Dupont Circle office.

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