Commentary: Lifting Cuban trade embargo would make economic sense

Recently President Obama began the process to lift the trade embargo against Cuba. I rarely agree with the president, but I support his decision to normalize relations with Cuba.

In late 2002, I traveled to Cuba with 40 California business and political leaders. We met with numerous Cuban government officials, including then-President Fidel Castro.

Cuba’s economy started to deteriorate on Jan. 1, 1959, the day Castro, Che Guevera and Camilo Cienfuegos’ 26th of July Movement toppled President Fulgencio Batista.

Just 90 miles from Florida, Havana was once called the Paris of the Caribbean. It’s not Paris anymore. Fifty-five years of Communism has left Cuba an economic basket case.

Havana’s infrastructure is crumbling from neglect. Its 1948 Chevrolets are held together with coat hangers and putty and used as taxicabs. Havana is in a time warp. Buildings that once boasted elegant architecture are rotting from decades of socialistic policies that promise a chicken in every pot.

The average Cuban worker earns $20 per month. The government provides food, clothing, education and housing. The people seem content because they don’t know how the world has passed them by. All forms of media are state-owned and -operated. The government filters all information.

A month after returning to the U.S., I read a news story about a fledgling democracy movement that had presented a petition to Castro signed by 12,000 Cubans and calling for democratic elections. There was no mention of this in the Cuban media.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Castro lost $6 billion per year in foreign aid. His primary trading partner cut him off, causing Cuban sugar, rum and cigar exports to collapse. Cuban sugar mills operate at 1940s efficiency, resulting in noncompetitive export pricing. Why would any country buy Cuban sugar at twice the price of Hawaiian sugar?

In the midst of this perfect storm of economic meltdown, Castro is becoming a capitalist. The Cuban Democracy Act prohibits bilateral trade between the U.S. and Cuba, although limited U.S. agricultural exports are allowed under Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act. I hope Congress will follow Obama’s lead and repeal the act.

Cuba hopes to replace its traditional export commodities with tourism, realizing it can’t float an economy on cigars, rum and sugar. Castro has successfully solicited joint-venture projects with any investor willing to put up the capital to build hotels in Veradero Beach, a premier tourist area west of Havana. Direct flights from Europe land at a new international airport that took two years to plan and build. Thirty new hotels have been built predominantly with Canadian, German, Dutch, South African and Israeli investors.

With beaches that rival those of Hawaii and Cancun, Varadero Beach has Hilton, Marriott and Four Seasons written all over it. And Castro is a motivated seller.

When the Soviet Union was a viable enemy, I could understand the hard line against Cuba. After all, the country once pointed nuclear missiles at us. Cuba couldn’t launch a bottle rocket today.

From my view, free trade with 12 million Cubans will bring some sanity to the failed communist experiment. Cubans are good people concerned about the same things that concern us — having safe cities and good schools and making life better for the children.

They are comfortable but live in a relative state of poverty by our standards. The vast majority of rural and urban housing are pre-revolution (1959) structures.

By all accounts, Cubans receive a good education but have no place to apply the knowledge. We had Ph.Ds from Havana University driving taxicabs. Doctors wait tables in tourist areas to make extra money. Everyone, regardless of social status, craves U.S. currency.

As much as it pains me to admit, Obama is right on this one. Lifting the trade embargo — which must be done by Congress — would be the next step to unlocking the handcuffs of communism from the Cuban people.

Sure, free trade will have its problems. Black markets will develop, and corruption will certainly rear its head. But over time democracy will follow as markets develop with U.S. products and information begins to reach the masses.

Times change. Cubans and America will benefit from normalized relations. Free trade is the great equalizer that would allow Castro’s victims to eventually reclaim their stolen property.

We have seen the wisdom of fostering trade with Vietnam, Russia and China. It seems only reasonable that we should encourage trade with a country that’s just a 5-iron from Miami.

Political consultant and former Orange County Fair Board member DAVID ELLIS lives in Newport Coast.