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Commentary: Want to help Cubans? End the embargo

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 10, 2009 - It is a well-established empirical relation that economic freedom and political freedom usually go hand in hand. Individuals who are unable to enjoy the fruits of their labor are not likely to invent or innovate. Political regimes that stifle discussion of alternatives usually stifle economic growth and the economic well being of their citizens.

With that in mind, it is past time to bring an end to the embargo against Cuba.

Almost 50 years ago President Dwight Eisenhower began the failed process of trying to oust the Cuban government through the use of economic embargo. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 formally established the embargo, which, according to most accounts, crippled the Cuban economy. Supplies and parts necessary to keep industries operating became scarce. Transportation was hit especially hard since damaged public vehicles could not be repaired.

President John Kennedy and the next administration pushed the embargo further, banning all trade except for certain foods and medicine. There was even an attempt to pressure other governments to join the embargo of goods into and out of Cuba. And so the folly of bringing the Castro regime to its knees continued over a generation or two. Fidel Castro is no longer in power, not because of our foolish policy, but because he outlived everyone who sought his downfall.

Does my support for ending the embargo signal support for the political regime that continues to devastate the lives of Cuban citizens? Of course not. My support for removing the ban -- both in terms of trade and travel -- actually reflects a long-standing position taken by conservative, free-market economists. If this seems duplicitous, it is not.

Milton Friedman, the late Nobel Prize laureate in economics, is perhaps best known among the public for his unwavering support of free markets. Markets that are free of untoward governmental intervention allocate goods and services more efficiently than any system devised by politicians or bureaucrats.

Friedman never suggested that the government has no role, just that the role should be minimal. One part played, for example, is to enforce the rules of the game. Governments should not, for example allow monopoly power to dictate pricing and allocation of goods.

In his view, economic arrangements in many ways dictate the political freedom of a country's citizens. This vision of economic freedom creating an insurgency for political freedom was somewhat radical when he wrote his 1962 classic -- Capitalism and Freedom.

"Viewed as a means to the end of political freedom," he writes, "economic arrangements are important because of their effect on the concentration or dispersion of power. The kind of economic organization that provides economic freedom directly, namely, competitive capitalism, also promotes political freedom because it separates economic power from political power and in this way enables the one to offset the other."

Stated differently, not imposing the embargo 50 years ago would likely have given the Cuban people a better chance at success, both economic and political. The failed experiment at bad economics condemned the Cuban people to a lower standard of living. And the Castro regime used this to its advantage: Castro convinced many to blame the United States, not his policies, for their plight.

Repealing the embargo will not send Raul Castro into exile. It will not immediately put Cuban into the Group of 20. But once the Cuban people have experienced economic freedom, it will be impossible to put that genie back into the bottle. Just ask the leaders of Vietnam or China.

The Cuban people have been undeserved victims of bad economic policy long enough. Congress and the president should do the right thing: Abolish the embargo on Cuba.

Rik Hafer is distinguished research professor and chair of the Department of Economics and Finance and director of the Office of Economic Education and Business Research at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Rik Hafer is a distinguished research professor in the Department of Economics and Finance at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and a scholar at the Show-Me Institute.

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