March 15, 2002

A deadbeat dictator

Frank Calzon. Posted on Thu, Mar. 14, 2002 in The Miami Herald

Fidel Castro's most persistent trait since assuming power in 1959 has been anti-Americanism. Now he says he wants to help American farmers and to trade with the United States.

By Castro's reckoning, selling grain and other commodities to Cuba will greatly benefit American farmers.

The American economy today is grappling with the Enron fiasco, which can be attributed to the company's manipulation of its fiscal data and the unwillingness of executive-branch regulators and Congressional policymakers to ask tough questions.

Congress must today ask whether profits from trade with Cuba aren't another mirage and whether American taxpayers won't take another hit if Castro's campaign to win credits and export guarantees succeeds.

Say what you will about the U.S. embargo, but one of its best-kept secrets is that it has saved U.S. taxpayers millions. Because of the embargo, American banks aren't among the consortium of creditors (among them Spanish, French, Canadian banks) known as ''The Paris Club.'' A consortium that has been waiting for years to be paid what's owed.

Had American banks been permitted to make loans to Castro, you and I both know that they would be pressing Congress to find a way for U.S. taxpayers to cover their losses in Cuba.

American agribusiness believes that there are huge profits to be made by trading with Havana. It argues that foreign-policy considerations should not prevent trade -- even if strengthening regimes such as those of Libya, Iraq and Cuba might someday put the lives of U.S. servicemen at risk.

Providing trade benefits to America's enemies, especially those on the State Department's list of terrorist nations, makes as much sense as the sale of U.S. scrap metal to Japan in the 1930's. Some of it was used to build up the Japanese military, leading to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

As the American Chamber of Commerce of Cuba in the United States reports in its February 2002 newsletter:

"Cuba's economic woes continue to mount as a result of being especially hard hit by the worldwide economic slow down and the fall-off in international travel after Sept. 11.

"Tourism, Cuba's most important economic sector has declined sharply.

"Cuba's second-largest source of foreign exchange, expatriate remittances, are down due to the downturn in the U.S economy.

"Removal of Russian surveillance facilities cost Havana $200 million in Russian rent yearly.

'Vice President Carlos Lage has cited 'the hard blow' by a fall in world prices for sugar and nickel.''

Since June 2000, sales of agricultural products and medicine to Cuba have been legal, but for more than a year no sales were made. After a hurricane in November 2001, the United States offered Cuba humanitarian assistance. Instead of accepting it and thanking the administration, Castro turned the offer into a public-relations stunt, insisting Cuba would buy $30 million in U.S. commodities.

His goal: to win U.S. credits and export insurance for future "sales.''

But Cuba is broke. It suspended debt payments in 1986. According to a Reuters story last month, "Cuba's Foreign Trade Ministry recently asked some of its biggest creditors to form a consortium to collectively restructure hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.''

The proposal signals Cuba cannot meet payment schedules, which it has been missing anyway since October, Reuters says.

During the last two years, France, Chile, South Africa, Thailand and others have canceled shipments or refused to provide export insurance to Castro.

Yet Castro's U.S. sales pitches are accepted at face value without checking available economic data. Castro desperately needs credits and subsidies, and agribusiness wants Washington to extend them.

Asking American taxpayers to extend credit to Castro is to ask them to finance an international deadbeat. The Bush administration said No when asked to bailout Enron. It should say No, as well, to bailing out Castro.

Frank Calzón is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba.


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