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A Tale of Two Countries

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This past year, trade between the United States and Vietnam rose to its highest level ever. Since the signing of the 2001 Bilateral Trade Agreement between the United States and Vietnam, American trading with its former enemy has grown 700% to a staggering figure of 15.4 billion dollars. Trailing only China, the United States has proven the second largest trade partner to the country of Ho Chi Minh. Despite a horrific war four decades ago costing hundreds of thousands of lives, both countries appear committed to a new-found friendship. Summarizing this mood, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk noted last spring, "We have found willing and able partners in Vietnam. And we will continue to undertake a robust agenda to strengthen and deepen the relationship."

Despite America's proud success with normalizing relations with Vietnam, the United States refuses to revise its stance towards Cuba. The above proves quite interesting as over 58,000 American servicemen were killed in Vietnam in comparison with the 4 killed in Cuba. While we seem so eager to show the Palestinian and Israeli governments that neighboring countries must respect one another, America refuses to take a taste of its own medicine. In light of former President Fidel Castro's comments demanding of Iran "to stop slandering the Jews," maybe the Israeli government could host a peace summit in Tel Aviv and guide the United States toward a path of peaceful coexistence with Cuba.

Following the election of President Barack Obama, we all expected "change we can believe in." Yet on the issue of Cuba, President Obama has adopted the motto "stability you can count on." This is not the first time that the American people are witnessing a disconnect between President Obama's rhetoric and his actions. During the campaign the commander-in-chief promised, "a new beginning" with Cuba, but two years later and we are still acting out the same script. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez recently admonished the Obama administration, declaring:

The president has fallen far short of the expectations created by his speeches. The blockade has not changed a bit. In fact, they have strengthened it when it comes to executing fines.

While President Reagan seized upon the Soviet era of reform during the 1980's as an opportune moment to improve relations between the two superpowers, the United States continues to be intransient in its outdated Cold War position with Cuba. Over the past several years, President Raúl Castro has acted to slowly dismantle his brother's failing revolutionary government. An internal memo obtained last week by the Associated Press further elaborates on the Cuban perestroika. This month in an effort to reduce the size of the socialist state, the Cuban government has indicated that it will lay off more than 500,000 government workers. These unemployed workers will be pushed into working at newly legalized cooperatives and foreign run companies, or even to start a small business. Further, a new tax code is to be instated with the purpose of establishing separate economic classes.

Although critics of normalizing relations with Cuba note failed past reforms, many scholars now agree that we are entering a new era of unprecedented reforms. A Cuban specialist at the Lexington Institute, Phil Peters notes the importance of these new pending reforms. "When they [Cuba] expanded self-employment in the 1990s, it was to get out of a crisis, and officials really didn't want to talk about it. But here, Raúl Castro decided that the government and its enterprises have to shed a large number of employees, and so this shift to the private sector is to achieve one of his strategic objectives."

While the Castro brothers remain quite close, one cannot help notice the distance in their respective philosophies. The reforms announced this past week combined with the numerous recent reforms of past years including the leasing of state land to private farmers and the lifting of restrictions on various market place products, outline a fundamental difference in the two brothers approach to government. Professor Ted Henken at Baruch College summarizes it best:

In the past, self-employment and private enterprise was always viewed by Fidel as a necessary and temporary evil, so it was highly regulated. This time, Raul's approach sounds different in that the state is essentially saying we can't and won't take care of you anymore and you'll have to take care of yourselves.

Although Raúl Castro continues to moderate his stance, President Obama and the United States remain hesitant in their desire to normalize relations. While Obama allowed for the travel of Cuban-American's wishing to return home last April, he has yet to announce any broad reform on travel regulations. Criticism of our commander-in-chief is not so much directed at what he has done, but what he has failed to do.

This week, Cuba released its annual report condemning the American embargo of Cuba. However, this year's report proved substantially different from past reports. While only an act of Congress can remove the embargo, the Cuban government offered 19 small, but significant steps President Obama could unilaterally take to improve relations between the two countries. Such actions include increasing people-to-people exchanges and removing the ban on American banks in Cuba. The former and the latter would prove significantly effective at increasing the flow of ideas and capital between the two nations.

Instead of using the report as a bargaining tool, the Obama State Department brushed aside this opportunity with more empty rhetoric. State Department spokesman Mark Toner stated, "We remain committed to policies that advance U.S. national interests and support the Cuban people's desire to freely determine their future." One can only ponder how a UN annual vote where 187 countries condemn American policy, "advances U.S. national interest" and how devastating the Cuban economy, "support[s] the Cuban people?"

A clear irony soon emerges: As the United States pursues an embargo in the hopes of eventually creating a market economy and a democracy in Cuba, Americans are further pushing Cubans toward a greater dependence on their socialist state. The internal memo discovered last week expresses Cuban fear that new cooperatives and start up businesses would face serious trouble and "many could go bankrupt before the end of the year." One would only assume that the United States would do all possible to support the development of the private sector in Cuba. However, the current situation is creating an environment where Cuban entrepreneurship is bound to fail.

As Secretary of State Hilary Clinton continues to push for Middle East peace by "reaching an agreement that results in two states living side by side in peace and security." The Obama administration must heed its own advice and realize there is a genuine opportunity to normalize relations with Cuba. While the president has sought to develop a foreign policy of pragmatism and peace, one cannot help but wonder of its application to Cuba.