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Free Trade

Should the U.S. embargo on Cuba finally be lifted?

I have been conflicted on this issue for years. Until not long ago, I favored the embargo. As an advocate for free trade, I would normally have called such a measure an unacceptable restriction on the freedom of people to trade with whomever they pleased. But I thought that trading with a regime that had killed, jailed, exiled or muzzled countless of its citizens for decades was not a worthy objective, as it would also preserve that dictatorship. Any transaction with Cuba would also benefit the government. After all, the authorities were already skimming 20 percent of the remittances from Cuban-Americans and 90 percent of the salary paid to Cubans by non-American foreign investors.    

Eventually, I admitted to myself that there was an intolerable inconsistency in my thinking. No democracy based on liberty should tell its citizens what country to visit or whom to trade with, regardless of the government under which they live. Even though the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, would obtain a political victory in the very short run, the embargo could no longer be justified.

Another risible subterfuge attributes the catastrophe that is Cuba's economy on Washington's decision to cut off economic relations in 1962 after a wave of expropriations against American interests. The amnesiacs conveniently forget that in 1958, Cuba's socioeconomic condition was similar to Spain's and Portugal's and the standard of living of its citizens was behind only those of Argentines and Uruguayans in Latin America. Many of the critics also seem to suffer what French writer Jean-Francois Revel used to call "moral hemiplegia"--a tendency to seefault only on one side of the political spectrum: I never heard Cuba's champions complain about sanctions against right-wing dictatorships.

In the cases in which sanctions have not worked--Saddam Hussein between 1990 and 2003, and North Korea today--the dictatorships were able to isolate themselves from the effects and concentrate them on the population. In some countries, a certain sense of pride helped defend the government against foreign sanctions--which is why the measures applied by the Soviet Union against Yugoslavia in 1948, China in 1960 and Albania in 1961 were largely useless.

But these arguments against the U.S. embargo are mostly practical. Ultimately, the argument against the sanctions is a moral one. It is not acceptable for a government to abolish individual choice in matters of trade and travel. The only acceptable form of economic embargo is when citizens, not governments, decide not to do business with a dictatorship, be that of Burma, Zimbabwe or Cuba.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute and the editor of "Lessons from the Poor."

By Alvaro Vargas Llosa