The death of longtime dictator Fidel Castro presents the U.S. with an opportunity it cannot waste — to end an embargo that has failed to produce desired results in more than half a century and to open the door to opportunity for both nations and, in the process, for Minnesota.
Doing so would not excuse the atrocities that occurred under Castro, or give a pass to repressions still occurring under Raul Castro. But the U.S. attitude toward Cuba has been disproportionately harsh and punitive, with little positive effect.
The thaw begun two years ago under President Obama, on the other hand, has produced immediate and beneficial results. Regrettably, it may be in jeopardy because of a hard line laid down by President-elect Donald Trump, who has declared that Cuba must progress on terms he sets or “I will terminate the deal.”
That is no empty threat. Everything up to this point — resumption of commercial flights, limited tourism, re-establishment of mutual embassies and nascent business deals — is due to executive action by Obama and could be undone just as unilaterally. Congress so far has refused to budge on lifting the embargo resuming full relations.
Trump may simply be attempting to create maximum leverage for the U.S., as he would in a business deal. But this is more than that. It is nation-to-nation diplomacy and requires a sensitive touch.
Cuba has not stood still during the decades of embargo. With the help of other investors, it is poised for explosive growth in agriculture, energy, tourism and consumer goods. The new Port of Mariel, built with Brazilian investors, is prepared to become a major hub for container ships passing through the Panama Canal to the U.S. eastern seaboard and gulf.
U.S. stubbornness has come at a price. Consider that the U.S. once was the top supplier of agricultural commodities to Cuba’s 11 million people. Farmers here lost out, while Cuba imported food from China and Brazil.
Rep. Tom Emmer, R.-Minn., a staunch advocate of both the incoming president and trade with Cuba, said he believes that while Trump talks tough, he won’t let the opportunity slip through U.S. hands. “I see this more as positioning,” said Emmer, who has been in touch with Trump’s people on the issue. “He is concerned about resolution of the land dispute,” Emmer said. “He wants to make sure Cuban patriots are heard. But the question is … what does the U.S./Cuban relationship look like for the next 50 years? It’s imperative that Republicans get on the right side of this. Healthy relationships form the basis of economic and national security, and I think Cuba is going to be part of that picture.”
That’s true. Too much work and time have gone into laying the groundwork for normalization of relations to turn back now. Some of Minnesota’s biggest corporate names — Cargill, Hormel, Ecolab, Polaris, Carlson — earlier this year joined the Engage Cuba Coalition. They are joined by the Minnesota Farm Bureau, the University of Minnesota and University of St. Thomas, the turkey growers, arts and cultural organizations — all part of an effort also underway in 15 other states.
Trump must balance competing interests, but the U.S. for too long has subverted its interests for the sake of Cuban expats who wanted to hurt the Castro regime. With the dictator’s death, that time has passed.