China = Cuba?

In the rush to get in bed with China, our legislative bodies have sailed easily through such "thorny" issues as human rights abuses and state-sponsored terrorist acts against the U.S. But Republicans in the House have run across another sticky question: will this radical change in attitude toward the world's largest communist country dictate a similar change toward the world's smallest? In the coming days, GOP leaders might be forced to admit that it will.

A measure on the floor of the House would allow U.S. companies to sell food and medicine to the Cuban government, easing the embargo that has been in place against that country for almost 40 years. It has already passed in the Senate by a healthy majority of 78-22. It looks like it might pass in the House. But that doesn't mean that Republican demagogues won't try to thwart the effort to create some reasonable economic dialogue with our ailing neighbor to the south.

Surprisingly, the bill itself was brought to the table by a Republican. In an article for USA Today, Bill Nichols quoted Representative George Nethercutt (R-Wa), who sponsored the bill, as saying, "We Republicans are the party of free-market economics and freedom ... my argument is it's a Republican approach to let markets work."

While market forces should never take precedence over humanitarian duty, I have to agree with Representative Nethercutt that it's high time we started "trading with the enemy." Allowing farmers to sell food to Cuba would not only ease some of the damage we've done to that country, but would bring in some $400 million a year in new exports.

But this sensible measure, like any good legislation, has its enemies. We can always count on our fine representative from Houston Tom DeLay to run contrary to good sense. He's leading the uphill battle against the agricultural appropriations bill, followed closely by Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Republican representative from South Florida whose constituents have shown so much cool-headedness as of late.

 DeLay rails against "easing sanctions on rogue states", and has made attempts to kill the bill through parliamentary procedures, while Diaz-Balart echoes the right wing Cuban-American establishment's position that any lightening of the embargo will only help Castro to remain in power. It is unlikely that either scheme will work.

First off: Cuba can no longer be considered a security threat to the U.S. While we somehow remain in a "state of national emergency" from the Cuban Missile Crisis so many years ago, the reality is that a country such as China has proven a greater menace to our national security than Cuba has or ever will. Even the military acknowledges this: In 1998, the Pentagon admitted that Cuba no longer posed a threat, and a Center for Defense Information report revealed that the equivalent of the total annual budget for the Cuban military is spent by the Pentagon in just 10 hours.

Secondly: While parliamentary procedure has worked in the past to prevent pro-Cuba legislation from coming to a vote, it is unlikely to work this time around. This bill, unlike past efforts, has major bipartisan support. Normalizing relations with Cuba is no longer seen as an issue strictly for liberal Democrats, especially since farm belt Republicans have started to wake up and smell the pigshit. The president of the National Pork Producers Council said that Cuba could be a major market for U.S. pig farmers, and rice farmers from Arkansas, after completing a recent agricultural tour of Cuba with federal lawmakers, expressed a keen interest in selling some of their crop to the island. A recent report from from Washington blames the embargo for as much as $1.6 billion a year in lost economic trade with Cuba. When cash registers ring, politicians listen. This changing tide of support for the bill suggests that Democrats and Republicans alike will see through the parliamentary chicanery which has kept this legislation from a vote before.

Last of all: Miami Cubans have made fools of themselves over the Elian ordeal, losing credibility with U.S. voters and Washington alike. The supposed electoral power of Southern Florida seems to be waning, and Jim Lobe, a reporter for the Inter Press Service, quoted a director at the World Policy Institute as saying, "The Elian Gonzalez issue seems to have convinced the heartland that U.S. policy is dictated by a small group in Miami who do not have the interests of America at large in mind."

The one thing which is stacked against Cuba in this case is the company it keeps. The four other nations up for consideration on this agricultural appropriations bill are Iran, Sudan, Libya, and North Korea ... nations which in the past have demonstrated real aggression against the U.S. Some representatives in the house might see this legislation as aiding nations which, in the words of a Diaz-Balart spokesman, "have killed Americans." Nethercutt, in an op-ed piece which ran in the New York Times, countered this unfounded fear by writing that "denying innocent civilians access to food and medicine, if only in principle, is an abhorrent policy tool."

I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment, yet I wonder about the title of Representative Nethercutt's piece -- "What's good for China is good for Cuba." The question I have for Mr. Nethercutt is this: "If it's good for Cuba and North Korea and Iran and Libya and Sudan, not to mention China, isn't it also good for Iraq?" I know of more than a million malnourished Iraqi  children who would definitely answer "yes."

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