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Trading With the Enemy:
Why is the U.S. Courting One Communist Country While Destroying Another?

by Craig Butler
art/Eachean Edmundson

The U.S. decision to grant Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) status with China represents yet another step toward "normalizing" relations with that country. Both the Clinton Administration and Congress support opening up economic relations, despite the fact that critics of China's human rights, environmental and labor abuses maintain that economic strictures are the only weapon we have to force change in these areas.

The Clinton Administration has long dismissed such protests. As Alan Larson, Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs, said in 1997, isolating China economically would only "strengthen the hand of those within the Chinese leadership who oppose reform. We support China's full integration into, and active participation in, the international community (and) we regard dialogue and engagement as the best way to manage our differences." Or, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explained during testimony before the Senate Committee on Finance on PNTR in July 1998, "It would be irresponsible for us not to have a multifaceted relationship with China at this point."

Yet the U.S. does not have the same point of view with regard to its nearest Communist neighbor, Cuba. Our official policy (as put forth by the U.S. State Department)"is to promote a peaceful transition to a stable, democratic form of government (by) maintaining pressure on the Cuban government for change through the embargo and the Libertad Act...We oppose consideration of Cuba's return to the Organization of American States or inclusion in the Summit of the Americas' process until there is a democratic government." The result of this policy has been an impoverishment of the Cuban people due to the severe economic hardships imposed by the 40-year-long embargo. (Under the embargo, the U.S. restricts economic and other access to Cuba for Americans; the Libertad, or Helms-Burton Act, attempts to forbid other countries from doing business with Cuba.)

"The Administration's idea that we must maintain the embargo in place in order to pressure Cuba to move toward democracy and respect for human rights is totally wrong," says Wayne S. Smith, Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979-1982. "As many dissidents in Cuba point out, the more we pressure, the more defensive the Cuban government becomes and the less propitious the atmosphere for positive change. We could do far more to encourage the kind of liberalization the American people want to see by easing tension, beginning a dialogue with the Cuban government and moving to dismantle the embargo."

Smith was somewhat encouraged by recent legislation allowing the sale of certain U.S. products (mostly agricultural) to Cuba. "I think the step in Congress partially to open up to the sale of foods and medicines, even though the measure was largely emasculated by the Republican leadership, reflects a trend," he states.

Thomas Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, agrees. "It's time for the U.S. to wake up to reality - unilateral sanctions don't work," he stated in October. "Instead of punishing our enemies, unilateral sanctions isolate America from its allies, provide ammunition to dictators to prop up their regimes, and shut out U.S. companies and their workers from markets around the world...We must remember that when we trade with other nations, we not only export our goods and services, we also export American ideals of freedom, democracy and free enterprise."

Unlike the U.S. government, the Chamber of Commerce maintains a consistent policy toward both Cuba and China. Their philosophy is summed up in Donohue's statement that "around the world, increased trade raises living standards, opens up closed societies, and generates the wealth needed to pay for social programs." Indeed, the Chamber of Commerce was one of the biggest proponents of establishing PNTR with China, stating that it is "in America's best economic and national security interests."

Many non-profit organizations also question the inconsistent economic policy toward these two nations. Bob Boehm, co-chair of the Fund for New Priorities in America, states that "the contrast between the treatment of Cuba and that of China is extreme. The arguments favoring the embargo have been demolished on all sides. We advocate the total abolition of the embargo and all its oppressive and anti-human aspects."

"We oppose economic blockades in favor of inclusive policies, such as constructive dialogue, for as many countries as possible," says Mary Day Kent, president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, which favors lifting the Cuba embargo. "However, we feel that the issue of China is a very complex one."

It is that complexity which causes many environmental and human rights groups to oppose the PNTR decision. As Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder explains, "This agreement addresses tariffs for everything from golf carts to weasel tail hair, yet manages to completely ignore the air and water we depend upon for survival."

"When American businesses look to China," says Joan Claybrook, President of Public Citizen, "they see dollar signs. They ignore the misery brought by China's continued human rights violations and inhumane treatment of workers."

Labor organizations, not surprisingly, agree with that statement and pushed hard against PNTR. "Congress had a chance to stand up for the brutally oppressed workers in China and the hundreds of thousands of U.S. manufacturing workers who will lose their jobs because of increased imports from the sweatshops of China," said Steelworkers President George Becker after the House voted in favor of PNTR. "Instead, it turned its back on Chinese and American workers."

"Proponents claim that the trade deal will lead to a more free and open Chinese society and benefit American workers as well," scoffed Stephen Yorkich, President of the United Auto Workers, going on to insist that President Clinton "demonstrate his commitment to human and workers' rights by demanding that the Chinese government immediately free the thousands of Chinese citizens who today are in prison cells for the ‘crime' of trying to form free trade unions."

And in a report entitled "Made in China: The Role of U.S. Companies in Denying Human and Worker Rights," the National Labor Committee disputes claims that the mere presence of corporations in China would help open that society to American values, charging instead that Wal-Mart, Nike and others "systematically violate the most fundamental human and worker rights, while paying below subsistence wages" and asking how such behavior is "spreading respect for human rights". The report cites examples of factories making American products where employees are expected to work 12-14 hour days, often seven days a week, for wages as low as 3 cents an hour. In one case, any employee who refuses to work overtime is automatically docked the equivalent of two days' wages.

Of course, Fidel Castro is not exactly a posterboy for human rights, although exactly how bad he is depends upon whom you ask. Retiring Florida Sen. Connie Mack has called him a tyrant, and Florida's other senator, Bob Graham, thinks that the human rights situation under Castro "is worse than that halfway around the world in China." (Both of these senators, by the way, voted for PNTR with China.)

Noam Chomsky, on the other hand, has termed Castro's regime "brutal, though a teddy bear in comparison with numerous U.S. friends and clients." Others point out the positive results of Castro's rule, including a 98% literacy rate, universal day care and health care, and free education through graduate school.

In a recent editorial, former California Gov. Jerry Brown wrote that "political maturity demands that the U.S. exercise its capacity to trade and coexist with nations of whose systems it does not approve." He also reminded readers that almost two decades ago, the U.S. promised it would lift the embargo if Castro fulfilled 3 requirements, which he did. The U.S. response, however, was not to lift the embargo but to tighten it through the Cuba Democracy Act of 1992 and the Helms-Burton Act in 1996.

In contrast, Public Citizen (an organization started in 1971 by Ralph Nader to help protect and inform consumers) has pointed out that since the Senate granted PNTR, China has intensified its vicious crackdown on the Falun Gong (an ancient spiritual practice), tightened its anti-free-speech control over the Internet, refused to join the Missile Technology Control Regime (an informal export control arrangement involving 32 countries striving to stem the spread of ballistic and cruise missiles), clamped down on freedom of the press, and charged the Pope with "severe crimes" for canonizing Chinese Catholics. There has been little official U.S. protest to these actions.

So why the disparity in the manner in which we treat these two Communist countries?

"American officials are more willing to normalize relations with China because China is a huge, irresistible market," says Wayne Smith (chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979-1982) , "while Cuba represents a market of only 11 million souls. If Cuba had a population of 100 million, there would be no embargo against Cuba and would not have been one for years." Still, Smith believes that, despite its smaller size, the Cuban market could be valuable to America. "Obviously, the U.S. is Cuba's natural market, and they, one of ours. The U.S. could sell at least 3 to 4 billion dollars a year of commodities to Cuba were the embargo lifted."

Unfortunately, there's another reason beyond the sizes of the markets that explains the difference in our relations with Cuba and China. "The hard-line Cuban exiles give generously to the campaign funds of our leading politicians," Smith points out. "There is no such Chinese-American lobby trying to prevent normalization with China by pouring money into the coffers of our politicians."

Or, to put it a different way, it's another example of the political Golden Rule: He who has -and, more importantly, gives - the gold, makes the rules.

According to Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch project, corporations spent a record $113 million to pass PNTR (as compared with slightly over $30 million to get NAFTA through the process). "Big business is buying democracy one star off the flag at a time," Wallach notes, "and many in Congress are selling." Sometimes corporate efforts were nothing less than blatant; Rep. Merrill Cook (R-Utah) reported that he was offered $200,000 to change his "no" vote on PNTR to "yes." Wallach called the PNTR vote "a case study of the corrosive effect money can have on the political process."

President Clinton also did a little congressional bribing himself, twisting the arms of lawmakers by offering pork barrel deals, such as environmental approval for a controversial, environmentally dangerous pipeline in Texas and promises to build weather stations and extend military contracts in target members' congressional districts. Clinton, of course, has numerous financial ties to business interests in China. For example, Pauline Kanchanalak (a wealthy Thai businesswoman), who famously brought representatives of the largest foreign investor in China to meet with President Clinton, gave close to $400,000 to the Democratic National Committee from 1993-1996.

While interested parties have been expending enormous sums of money to get us into China, equally interested parties are expending similar sums to keep us out of Cuba. As veteran journalist Harley Sorensen has noted, "Our Cuban policy is all about money." Most of that money comes from two sometimes-overlapping groups: anti-Castro Cuban-Americans and the sugar industry.

For decades, a relatively small group of anti-Castro exiles - most notably the family of the late Jorge Mas Canosa, which runs the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and its Free Cuba political action committee - have held hostage American policy toward Cuba. Indeed, the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act was passed because then-candidate Bill Clinton desperately wanted to win Florida. His support for the bill, for which he was rewarded with $300,000 from CANF, pressured President Bush to throw his support behind it and ensure its passage.

Free Cuba has been giving generously to both parties for years, of course. In 1997-98, for example, Free Cuba gave soft money donations of $53,500 to the Democrats, $49,000 to the Republicans. They have donated generously to a wide range of individual elected officials, including Rep. Patrick Kennedy and Sen. Henry Reid. And in 2000, prior to his nomination as vice president, they gave a whopping $10,000 to longtime-ally Joseph Lieberman.

Dan Burton, the Congressional sponsor of the notorious Helms-Burton Act, is a particular favorite of Cuban-American donors. The Indiana representative receives only 14% of campaign contributions from interests in his own state. The remaining 84% comes from a variety of out-of-state concerns with the Cuban-American community accounting for a full 25% of his hefty campaign warchest.

As for Sen. Jesse Helms, the senatorial sponsor of that bill, "Helms gets big time sugar money, as well as a lot of tobacco and liquor money," Sorensen notes, explaining that U.S. interests do not want to compete with sugar, tobacco and rum from other countries - such as Cuba. And of that triumvirate, sugar is the one with the most to lose to Cuba. Over a 20-year period, the sugar industry pumped $1.5 million into the pockets of current members of the House and Senate committees that oversee agricultural issues. In return, U.S. policy keeps sugar prices artificially high for consumers - about 8 cents above the world market price.

The Fanjul family, who were forced under Castro to leave Cuba, own the huge Flo-Sun Sugar Company in Florida. They make some $60 million extra per year because of that price support, and they aim to keep that by providing funding to both political parties. Indeed, Alfonso Fanjul was Clinton's campaign co-chair in Florida in 1992, while his brother Pepe was on Dole's Florida finance committee in 1996. They make sure that, no matter who wins, they have a sympathetic ear for their concerns about Cuba.

And so we continue to close the door on Cuba and open it to China.

"The Senate vote on PNTR is a victory for common sense and thoughtful judgment," Robert Kapp, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, said this year. One can certainly argue with that position, but if one accepts it - as our elected officials have visibly done - there is absolutely no logical justification for continuing the Cuba embargo. Conversely, a case can be made that demanding a consistent trade policy toward China and Cuba tries to force a "one size fits all" solution to complex problems. There is, of course, a world of difference between imposing conditional restrictions upon trade with a country with the goal of improving the conditions of the people who live there and imposing a total blockade the purpose of which is the removal of the head of state and the result of which is the decimation of the living standards for the people who live there.

So no matter where one stands on granting PNTR to China, our policy toward Cuba makes no sense.

Equally important, no matter where one stands on either China or Cuba, one should be outraged that a small group of people are dictating foreign policy for the entire nation and are able to do so largely because of their access to large sums of money. In the case of Cuba, there are other reasons, of course, including presidential candidates' willingness to do anything to gain Florida's 25 electoral votes. But money is still the overriding factor.

It's a disheartening story, but until such time as we get legitimate campaign finance reform, it will be a familiar one. In the meantime, it's up to us to fight back, by making our feelings on these issues known to elected officials - and by doing everything we can to defeat officials who listen to the soothing sound of greenbacks rather than the voices of the people they are elected to represent.

Give 'em hell. It's the only way.

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