Cuba is 90 miles from the United States, yet to most Americans, the Cuban people and culture have remained shrouded in a veil of mystery since 1960. But, once there is an opportunity to travel to Cuba and see how the country is changing, it is clear that current U.S. policy is outdated and counterproductive for the United States and Cuba.
The center piece of U.S.-Cuba policy is the trade and travel embargo. Restrictions on trade with and travel to Cuba are against the spirit of American freedom and free trade. President Trump has an opportunity to craft a smart, strategic trade policy with Cuba. If they intend to pursue a legacy of creating jobs, expanding freedom for American citizens, and spreading democratic and free market values abroad, they cannot afford to undo all the progress made on Cuba.
The narrative perpetuated by hardline politicians is grossly inaccurate. On my recent trip to Cuba, I was greeted with an optimism and entrepreneurial spirit largely absent from mainstream accounts of an oppressed population. Make no mistake—the government of Cuba has a long way to go in improving its record on political freedoms. But the degree to which the nascent private sector has already permeated the culture in Cuba is astonishing, and the enthusiasm of Cuban entrepreneurs is infectious. These entrepreneurs aren’t hard line communists trying to build up the Communist party. These are folks trying to create apps or open barber shops to provide a better life for themselves and future generations.
Cuban business owners attribute much of their success to American engagement. Many have visited the U.S. to learn from tech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, or exchange ideas with Americans closer to home in Miami. Even those who have had the experience of learning directly from Americans are quick to cite U.S. travelers as a major factor in their recent commercial success. Surveys have shown that the vast majority of Americans in Cuba choose to stay in Airbnbs (casas particulares in Cuba) and eat at private restaurants (or paladares).
And a nation that relied entirely on offline data transfers as recently as three years ago is now plugged into over 300 Wi-Fi hotspots across the island thanks in part to U.S. political influence, and a recent agreement with Google promises more access in the near future. Even with this technological progress, there is much more to do. Internet access is still spotty and there is very little reliability. Lack of internet connectivity was an obstacle cited by most of the entreprenerus I met. Even with these problems, they persevere and struggle to build their business.
If the U.S. government’s ultimate policy goal is to expose Cuba to the wonders of free enterprise, then engagement is the only approach. And with the promise of regime change in February 2018, economic controls in Cuba could become gradually looser over the next several years. To take an abrupt step back from this process, when it so clearly needs U.S. resources and capital to move it forward, would essentially amount to an invitation for Russia, or other countries, to step in and exert its influence in our absence.
A continued embargo will also embolden the Cuban government to point to the United States as the boogey man and exert more force on the Cuban people. U.S. consumers will benefit from increased trade with Cuba as more goods will be available for consumption. Taxpayers will benefit as businesses sell more goods to Cuba thereby expanding their businesses and increasing tax revenue.
Not only does engagement benefit the Cuban people; there is simply no persuasive argument for piling onerous regulations onto U.S. businesses and citizens. There is no other country in the world that the U.S. government prohibits travel to, not even North Korea, a rogue state currently detaining three U.S. citizens without due process and firing ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. In fact, the taxpayer-funded Office of Foreign Assets Control audits travel to Cuba. To waste taxpayer dollars on regular federal audits of travelers who just want to tour a UNESCO World Heritage site and smoke cigars is turning a deaf ear to our nation’s real priorities.
In a nation that prides itself on its capitalist foundations, restricting economic competition in the interest of a failed policy is a betrayal of our values. There may have been a proper time and place for a full embargo on Cuba, but the Cold War is long over. If capitalism “won” the war of ideas, there is no reason to hold it just out of arm’s reach from Cuba, as if tempting the government to waltz back toward Putin.
Taxpayers, consumers, and all citizens have nothing to gain from a failed state in our hemisphere, and everything to gain from a new trading partner and reliable diplomatic collaborator. It’s time for President Trump and Congress to lift the trade and travel embargo and help U.S. businesses, consumers, taxpayers, and 11 million Cuban neighbors.
David Williams is the President of the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. In his 22 years in Washington, DC, David has become an expert in finding and exposing government waste and has helped fine tune criteria in identifying and ultimately eliminating earmarks. David has appeared on numerous television, radio, and print outlets such as ABC World News Tonight, The Jim Bohannon Show and The New York Times.