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Thursday, May 23, 2002

U.S. idiosyncrasies on Cuba, free trade


LOS ANGELES -- Undoubtedly, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's red-carpet reception in Cuba rubbed President George W. Bush the wrong way.

It's not just because Carter is a leading member of the opposition party, or that Bush would rather have made such a trip himself. After all, if America can be friends with China and Saudi Arabia -- not to mention the suddenly pivotal Central Asian states -- why not with Cuba?

What's really bothering Bush is that Carter doesn't have to run for re-election, and Bush, of course, does. So the essential difference between a place like repressive Uzbekistan and a place like repressive Cuba is Florida.

To understand the oddities of all-over-the-map American foreign policy, look at the intricacies of its domestic politics. As there are approximately 833,000 Castro-hating Cuban exiles in Florida -- a state with 25 electoral votes that no national politician can ever afford to ignore, especially after the photo-finish 2000 election -- U.S.-Cuba policy is frozen in the iceberg of U.S. electoral politics.

Despite that reality, the U.S. business lobby would like to thaw that relationship to rustle up new investment opportunities in the Caribbean. But the potential magnitude of the Cuban market is nothing like that of China, and so is not a worthwhile political risk for the White House. Besides, no other pivotal U.S. electoral state possesses such a comparably potent concentration of single-issue voters (as Florida's Cuban exiles) that limits an incumbent president's room for maneuver.

Even so, foreigners must wonder about the consistency and integrity of a foreign policy that persists in the isolation of Cuba while flowering in the direction of suddenly useful Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan -- states every bit as repressive as any on Earth and far less fair (in terms of income distribution) than some (like Cuba).

Cuba is not, of course, the only example of such inconsistency. Consider the case of America's suspiciously selective commitment to the principles of free trade. We preach to others the gospel of opening markets and pushing coddled, protected industries into the brutal but real world of open competition. But then, like a drunken preacher, we do not always practice what we preach.

For example, to protect the rusty U.S. steel industry, the Bush administration is raising tariffs on foreign steel imports and, to protect the re-election prospects of members of Congress from rural regions, is signing a new law providing increased government subsidies to U.S. farmers. That, in effect, undercuts lower-priced foreign produce, especially from low-wage developing countries struggling to raise living standards.

Even our close ally Australia, while no struggling Third World nation, is complaining publicly about this trend. How can the world's only superpower, asks Trade Minister Mark Vaile, claim the leadership of the World Trade Organization and champion of the free-trade ideal, only to engineer protectionism in its own backyard? Subsidies are to the notion of improving market access for developing nations as conservative Islamic states are to religious freedom. Australia leads an 18-member group of agriculture-exporting nations for which the huge U.S. market makes all the difference.

But hypocrisy is a bumper crop in Washington. And so the increasingly protectionist Bush administration is now throwing mud at the Democratic-controlled Senate for the same sinful practice of protectionism. The current version of the international trade bill -- known as "fast track" -- is being doctored by protectionist senators. If passed, it will allow Congress to pull the plug on any trade deal Congress deems inimical to U.S. antidumping or antisubsidy laws. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, speaking for the White House, issued a ringing denunciation of the amendment as "protectionism under procedural cover."

Seen from the perspective of our allies and trading partners, this protectionist circus in Washington is hardly inspirational. But it is, to be sure, a real-world exercise: So perhaps if the United States were to get off its free-trade high horse and lecture others a lot less often, the world would be more sympathetic to the intense pressures of our domestic politics. But without credible U.S. leadership in market-opening measures, the darkness of debilitating trade wars looms.

Can we expect much from Washington before the big round of trade talks in Mexico next year? Look at it this way: U.S. congressional elections take place in November. The last state primary takes place Sept. 21 -- in Hawaii. There are 34 Senate seats contested. Guess how many senators are likely to stand up against the vested interests this year? Just ask Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Tom Plate, a UCLA professor, is a regular columnist for the South China Morning Post and the Honolulu Advertiser.


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