Editorial: Sham Engagement

THE DECISION TO RENEW China's Most Favored Nations (MFN) status earlier this year was disheartening for those concerned about human rights. Despite an earlier commitment by President Clinton to deny MFN status to China unless significant improvements were made in the area of human rights by the Chinese government, commercial concerns won the day. The administration joined the chorus of business leaders declaring that the best way to improve human rights in foreign countries was "constructive engagement"- arguing that mere contact with U.S. culture would morally augment these societies.

As President Clinton met with leaders of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) this month to discuss improving U.S. trade with countries in the Pacific, the flimsy reasoning of constructive engagement was extended to justify increased trade with Indonesia, a country whose human rights violations are "on a staggering scale," according to Amnesty International. "The human rights situation in Indonesia has deteriorated in the run up to the APEC summit, ... as the government has sought to rid the capital of Šeconomic and political criminals,'" Amnesty reported. "The crackdown ... has broadened in recent months to affect government critics, labor activists as well as a variety of socially marginal groups."

 Meanwhile, Indonesia maintains its illegal occupation of East Timor, where over 200,000 people - one third of the Timorese population - have been killed or have died of starvation or disease since the 1973 Indonesian invasion.

 This ongoing repression notwithstanding, and despite massive evidence to the contrary, Clinton stated at a November 15 news conference in Jakarta, "[W]e reject the notion that increasing economic ties and trade and partnership undermine our human rights agenda. We believe they advance together."

 In the case of the Western Hemisphere's largest recipient of U.S. military assistance, Colombia, U.S. "engagement" has bolstered a repressive regime which routinely carries out extrajudicial executions and unarmed civilians. A decision to be active in human rights issues in Colombia "is tantamount to signing your own death warrant," according to Amnesty.

 Curiously, there is one country in particular to which the United States has not applied the skewed logic of "constructive engagement." The Cuban embargo, an embarrassing, hypocritical relic of the Cold War, has been maintained despite the fact that Cuba no longer poses any conceivable threat to U.S. security.

 In carrying on its unilateral, disingenuous crusade, the United States has declared itself the vanguard of the Cuban human rights cause, defying a broad international concensus that includes leading Cuban dissidents and 102 members of the United Nations which supported a resolution condemning the embargo (the United States and Israel were the only countries who voted against the resolution).

The 1992 Cuban Democracy Act denies the island nation basic economic necessities, including food and medical supplies, "so long as [Cuba] continues to refuse to move toward democratization and greater respect for human rights."

 Where were these lofty principles during the MFN debate?

The truth is, the embargo has little to do with such humanitarian principles. "My objective is to wreak havoc in Cuba. ... My task is to bring down Fidel Castro," declared Cuban Democracy Act sponsor Robert Torricelli, D-New Jersey, at a recent panel at Georgetown University. "Don't take your boot off the snake," echoed Clay Shaw, R- Florida, at the March 1994 House Committee Hearings that examined the possibility of normalizing relations with Cuba.

 In part, the embargo exists because Cuba is an embarrassment. Formerly the playground for the U.S. rich and powerful, with much its population reduced to prostitutes and servants of various sorts, Cuba picked itself up and threw out its oppressors. Allying itself with the Soviet Union, it thumbed the United States at every turn.

Castro's Cuba is not without its problems. Political democracy is absent; hundreds of Cubans - including many who are prisoners of conscience - are unjustly imprisoned for up to four years for so-called "dangerousness." And a combination of the collapse of the Soviet Union, internal planning mistakes and the embargo have sent the economy into a tailspin.

 But rising from an impoverished de facto U.S. colony, Cuba now consistently ranks among the world's highly industrialized countries in basic indicators such as literacy rate, life expectancy and access to clean water and adequate sanitation. The Cuban government has developed systems of universal education and top-notch health care for all its citizens; and hunger, even under the embargo, is not a severe problem. These basic rights are widely available in Cuba, but it is just short of heresy to talk about the humanitarian gains made by the Castro regime in the United States.

 More importantly, in choosing its independent path, Cuba has become one of the last bastions where Northern economic interests and the desires of multinational corporations are subjugated to domestic needs. Even under the recent liberalizations in the Cuban economy, Cuba remains a society that, relative to most other countries, places the needs of its population higher than the concerns of global capital.

While history and personality play a part in the embargo, the embargo's reasoning is primarily motivated by a desire to squelch any national development efforts that might demonstrate a viable alternative to the multinational corporate-friendly, neoliberal "free market" model.

 The Cuban embargo is a shameful component of U.S. foreign policy. Like policies of constructive engagement, the embargo is designed solely to force deregulation of economies; and if human suffering and violations of national sovereignty must occur in the process, so be it.