After decades of isolation, we are seeing a measured shift in our policy toward Cuba. We have resumed diplomatic relations and expanded travel opportunities, lifted caps on financial assistance between families, eased trade restrictions, and will soon see the first presidential visit since the Coolidge administration.
These policy changes are supported by the vast majority of Cuban Americans. They are applauded by sector after sector of the U.S. business community. They are welcomed by Americans at large.
Make no mistake: conditions are improving for the Cuban people because of these changes.
There are some who do not fully appreciate the meaningfulness of this opening to Cuba. They maintain that we have somehow offered concessions to the Cuban government without benefit to the United States or to the Cuban people. Some contend that we have moved prematurely when human rights issues remain unresolved in Cuba.
To be clear, human rights abuses persist in Cuba, and we all seek a remedy. Yet another 50 years as the Cuban government’s convenient scapegoat for the failure of socialism is unlikely to yield gains in human rights in the future, any more than our policies have done in the past. For far too long, U.S. administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have insisted that U.S. measures, like ending the travel ban or easing the trade embargo, must be met by moves by the Cuban government. I understand this instinct, but I would submit that ending the travel ban and easing the trade embargo, even when done unilaterally, lead to better human rights conditions in Cuba.
Recent economic and travel reforms are taking full advantage of the opportunities presented by the failures of socialism in Cuba. Recognizing its precarious economic position in recent years, the cash-strapped Castro regime has laid off thousands of government workers and has expanded legal opportunities in the private sector. This has given way to a dramatic rise in the number of entrepreneurs running restaurants, bed and breakfasts, taxi services, barbershops, beauty salons and much more. In fact, it is estimated that as many as a third of Cuba’s 5 million workers are now operating in Cuba’s private sector.
This exponential expansion of Cuba’s entrepreneurial class would not have happened were it not for U.S. policy changes in 2009 that have led to an explosion of travel and remittances among Cuban Americans. Some suggest that remittances to the island are responsible for 70 to 80 percent of the capital used in small businesses in Cuba.
Economist Milton Friedman wrote that economic freedom is “an indispensable means toward the achievement of political freedom.” Far from being concessions, changes in our policy toward Cuba are reinforcing and advancing opportunities for Cubans in the private sector. Citizens who are totally dependent on government for their livelihood are subject to the whims of all-powerful leaders in a way that those who are economically independent are not.
In a very real sense in Cuba, the economic agenda is the human rights agenda. And this is just the beginning.
Expanded business interest and frequent and regular travel between the two countries will continue to open economic ties and it will lead to private sector economic opportunities on the island. The recent expansion of people-to-people exchanges, coupled with the recently completed bilateral air service agreement, represents a key piece to ensuring the continued travel of Americans to the island. This agreement will, for the first time in 50 years, provide scheduled air service between the U.S. and Cuba.
I should note that the administration has done just about all that its authority permits to effect change on the island. In the coming months, it will be up to Congress to take the next steps. I hope that we, particularly those of us on this side of the aisle who believe so strongly in the value of free markets and free enterprise, will remember these principles as we promote democracy and human rights in Cuba in a way that we actually believe will achieve results.
Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There can be no liberty unless there is economic liberty.” This statement is as true in Cuba as it is anywhere in the world. It is my hope that this principle will guide our actions as we endeavor to promote freedom and liberty in Cuba.