When I returned from a two-week journey across Cuba in 2007, I wrote that I had done a 180-degree turn in my attitude. The United States, I said, should normalize relations with the island nation, including lifting the trade embargo.
What caused me to change my mind was seeing for myself the incredible potential of a poor country. Cuba, situated only 90 miles from the largest economy in the world, could increase its standard of living at a staggering pace, if only the Cuban government would loosen its controls, and if the U.S. would treat Cuba no differently than we treat China. Such prosperity would have more of the desired pro-democracy impact we seek than the embargo.
Cuba has the basics for overnight prosperity.
The island has a highly educated population with, supposedly, a 100 percent literacy rate. Its citizens are healthy, with free, abundant health care. Poverty, though persistent, does not appear to be overwhelming, and crime is minimal. Those are the benefits of a benevolent dictatorship, which, unfortunately, does not include many freedoms, at least for now.
President Barack Obama has taken the right first moves toward normalizing relations, including opening up travel to more Americans, establishing an embassy and allowing more dollars to flow to Cuban citizens from their families in the U.S. But the president does not have the authority to lift the trade embargo, and that is a shame.
Once Cuba is opened up — as it surely will be within a decade or sooner — the island will not end up as another poor Caribbean country whose underclass lives in the shadow of swank beachfront hotels. There is real potential to not only create great wealth, but also a large middle class.
Cuba is already a developed nation in many respects. It just has not modernized.
What Cuba could become in a relatively short time is a commercial hub, not unlike the main island of Singapore. Although Singapore is not a communist country, it is tightly controlled — and quite prosperous. It boasts one of the busiest ports in the world. Why couldn’t Cuba, so close to the United States, blossom into an economic powerhouse, like Singapore?
Just because Cuba is a communist country need not be an impediment to this kind of economic dynamism. Just look at China. Look at Vietnam. They have remained under state controlled communism, while expanding their economies like capitalists.
Which brings us to the subject of human rights.
The 53 political prisoners who were released, as part of the deal with Obama, are the tip of the iceberg. It is estimated there are thousands of political prisoners in Cuban jails.
But let’s not be hypocrites.
We are allies with Saudi Arabia, where a blogger recently was sentenced to 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes.
We are trade partners with China, where human rights do not exist for its critics, political opponents and others.
We do plenty of business with Vietnam, which is not known for its freedoms.
Cuba’s human rights are a blight on mankind, but the nation is far from alone.
Our previous policy of isolation did nothing to improve human rights. In fact, it accomplished nothing, except to increase the struggles of the average Cuban.
If we open up relations with Cuba, no different from China, we likely will see a communist country turn capitalistic, under the banner of communism.
The hope is, after people have tasted economic freedoms, that democratic freedoms will follow.
That has not happened yet in China, but it may yet. And it could happen in Cuba, where selected American television programs and movies are already watched throughout the island. We cast a mighty shadow, and it will be difficult to keep the lid on an informed, intelligent, educated population, situated just off our shores.
Reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.