Freedom First or Business First?

Current U.S. policy toward Cuba conditions economic engagement with the Castro regime on its respect for basic human rights and enactment of genuine political and economic reform.

This policy can be described as “freedom first.” It is often labeled a failure by American foreign-policy elites and some in the media because the Castro regime, a brutal and bankrupt totalitarian dictatorship led by a handful of octogenarians, refuses to acknowledge human rights or to accommodate political or economic reforms.

Yet few in the Western Hemisphere — even left-leaning governments — seek to emulate Cuba’s political or economic model. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez is, perhaps, an exception, but even he is hamstrung by the Venezuelan people’s absolute rejection of Cuba’s totalitarianism.

Conversely, the United States’ “business first” policy of economic engagement toward China’s dictatorship has helped turn what was, in the 1970s and 1980s, a fragile, disoriented and struggling regime desperately seeking a way out of its failed communal agrarian economy, into one of history’s most repressive but lucrative dictatorships.

China is now the pièce de résistance in the eyes of the world’s tyrants. For the Chinese people, however, things could have turned out better.

Following Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, a wave of mostly political — not economic — reform movements spread across China. The Democracy Wall Movement, which began with people spontaneously posting signs demanding political reform and democracy on a Beijing wall, spread quickly. Hundreds of thousands of students and activists took up the cause and courageously pushed the limits of official tolerance with demands for free expression, democratic processes and open criticisms of the Communist Party, a movement that culminated on June 4, 1989, in the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The tepid response from the international community then allowed aspirations for democratic reform to be supplanted by the economic aspirations and priorities of multinational corporations and their “official” Chinese business partners.

Today, the lure of China’s $6 trillion economy overshadows that country’s dismal human-rights record and has served to consolidate the ironclad, one-party rule.

Now, when the United States wants to effectively defend the basic human rights of the Chinese people, it must first and foremost calculate and consider the potential impact on interest rates in the United States, lest China’s tyrants feel slighted and start selling off U.S. Treasury notes.

As it economically holds the United States hostage, the Chinese regime, thus, seems to have it all: a monopoly on power, subservient economic elites, overflowing bank accounts and sovereign funds, and an unchecked right of repression.

None of this could have happened without the complicity of the United States, which generously opened its markets to China’s near slave-like labor, helping create a manufacturing powerhouse. The United States is now competing economically with a monster it created and facing blowback when dealing with its national security and foreign policy priorities from Pakistan to Iran.

Worse, the new and growing wealth of China’s ruling class has spurred neither democratic reform nor greater respect for human rights. Over the last month, China’s regime has undertaken one of the most brutal and widespread crackdowns on dissent since Tiananmen Square. The crackdown has even led the Economist magazine to begrudgingly conclude: “In the short term at least, these troubling developments undermine the comforting idea that economic openness necessarily leads to the political sort.”

“Comforting idea”? Comforting to whom? The idea that economic engagement leads to political reform is often and simply proffered to assuage public concerns and the sometimes guilty consciences of those who know they’ll profit from transacting business with brutal tyrants. It’s not been comforting for the countless Chinese democracy advocates imprisoned and tortured, or to the families of those executed over the years.

So which of the two repressed nations — Cuba or China — is the most likely to emerge a democracy? Or become the first to demonstrate respect for basic human rights?

Will it be the economically powerful Chinese regime, with its dissident movement now desperately struggling to overcome the gargantuan charm of its repressor’s wealth thanks to the United States’ focus on “business first”? Or will it be the bankrupt, octogenarian Cuban regime of the Castro brothers, with its growing dissident movement led by youthful figures who have managed to garner and hold the world’s attention — thanks to the leverage provided by the United States’ focus on “freedom first”?

Time will identify the real policy failure. In the meantime, two wrongs won’t make things right for any of those oppressed by dictators around the world.

Mauricio Claver-Carone, a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in Washington and formerly served as an attorney with the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

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