Florida Takes Cuba Policy to the Absurd

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Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks to the media after signing House Bill 959 at the Freedom tower on May 1, 2012 in Miami, Florida. The Florida legislative bill is said to be intended to prevent taxpayer dollars from ending up in the hands of companies with business ties to the dictatorships of Cuba or Syria.

Cuba has always been a volatile issue in Florida, but what played out in Miami this week bordered on the farcical. The Florida legislature, prodded by the politically potent Cuban exile lobby, recently passed a bill that bars state and local government from hiring foreign firms that do business with Cuba or Syria. (This being Florida, of course, the real target is Cuba.) On Tuesday, May 1, Governor Rick Scott, hoping to curry favor with the exiles, came to Miami and ceremoniously signed the measure. And then, oops, he promptly conceded the law was unenforceable because only the federal government can pass that kind of international commerce legislation.

The Miami muddle is yet another embarrassment for Florida government — just about every business group on the peninsula warns that the new law, sure to be challenged in court, will alienate investment in a state with one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates — and especially for the U.S.’s worn-out, Cold War Cuba policy. Everyone but the most diehard Castro-ites wants to see democracy in Cuba. But the delusional obsession with toppling the Castro regime while Fidel and Raúl are alive compromises the more realistic effort to promote a transition to democracy on the island when the octogenarian brothers are dead. Two other events this past week help drive that point home.

The first was a video conference held last weekend between Cuban officials and more than 100 Cuban-Americans. Granted, it was largely a Havana p.r. show. Yet the discussion did focus on Cuba’s recent economic reforms — to save the island’s cash-strapped economy, Raúl Castro is allowing more free enterprise, including private real estate sales — and how the Cuban diaspora can take part in them. Cuba’s human-rights record is still dismal, and anti-Castro hardliners insist that engagement like the video conference merely aids a dictatorship that represses democratic freedoms and tosses dissidents behind bars. But in the long run, this sort of economic engagement actually undermines the regime. That’s because it’s also about aiding Cubans — helping them develop private businesses and, in turn, helping them develop civic life independent of the communist state.

(MORE: Why the U.S. Should Drop the Embargo and Prop Up Cuban Homeowners)

And yet, à la the new, unenforceable Florida law, the exile leadership keeps trying to tighten the screws of a 50-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, including a constitutionally questionable ban on U.S. travel to the island, that has utterly failed to dislodge the Castros. Instead, it should encourage ways to exploit Cuba’s reforms, like funding microcredit for the small- and medium-size enterprises that stand to improve Cubans’ dreary economic lives and plant the seeds of change in their bleak political lives.

One video conference topic was the hated carta blanca, or “white card,” the official exit visa that is all but impossible for most Cubans to attain. Last month, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón said a “radical and profound” announcement about the carta blanca could come as early as this month, raising hopes that Cubans may soon be able to travel more freely off the island. “Raúl Castro has to create employment for the millions of Cubans he has to lay off from the public sector,” says Emilio Morales, a Cuban who recently emigrated to the U.S. and heads the Havana Consulting Group in Miami to help investors locate opportunities in Cuba. “That means finding investment for larger businesses than street vending. If Cubans can take trips off the island, they’re going to come in contact with new sources of capital and credit — and not just their exile relatives.”

A big question is how much foreign investment and credit the Castro regime will allow in private enterprise, aside from the remittances Cubans receive from those exile relatives (more than $2 billion since 2010). Raúl Castro obviously wants to control not just the capitalist but democratic impulses his reforms will unleash — as do, say, communist leaders in China. Which brings us to the second piece of news this week that makes the new Florida law look all the more jaded — and hypocritical.

As the Chen Guangcheng drama plays out, as we wonder if local Chinese security forces really are beating up the dissident’s family right now, it’s only fair to ask why Cuban exile-driven laws like the one Governor Scott signed (sort of) this week don’t also include the repressive communist regime in China. After all, unlike Cuban communism, which relies on Castro charisma and is therefore more likely to fade away when the Castros are gone, Chinese authoritarianism will likely hold sway over more than a billion people for a long time to come.

The answer, of course, is that China is Florida’s largest non–Latin American trading partner. That simply points up the more cynical U.S. rationale for isolating Cuba and not China: in the case of the former, we can, and in that of the latter, we can’t. So as long as the hardline Cuban exile lobby remains as powerful as it is — and to those exiles’ credit, they vote, which is more than you can say for half the U.S. electorate — even the Obama Administration will cling to the embargo in all its obsolescence. And as this week reminds us, all its absurdity.