China Debate Puts GOP Under Pressure on Cuba

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So let's try and get this straight: The best way to undermine repressive communist states is to trade with them, allowing their people that heady whiff of freedom that floats aromatically off a Big Mac, forcing their governments to lift the economic shackles and unleash an avalanche of entrepreneurial creativity that makes nonsense of Marxism. Well, yes, and no — if you're Trent Lott, that is. According to the Senate Majority Leader and other congressional Republican honchos, an influx of U.S. goods will help force China's communist bureaucracy to democratize, but would only strengthen the hand of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Which is why the GOP leadership is fighting to stop a bill authorizing a partial lifting of trade sanctions against Cuba from reaching the House floor. Embarrassing Lott is the fact that the measure was initiated by Washington Republican representative George Nethercutt; even more embarrassing is that despite the efforts by GOP congressional leaders to maintain the Cuba-embargo shibboleth on the Hill, Nethercutt and his allies — many of whom are Republicans — may have enough support to force a vote.

Put on the spot by reporters Monday, Senator Lott was at pains to distinguish between trade with China, of which he's an enthusiastic advocate, and trade with Cuba, which he firmly opposes. Cuba "is the only remaining communist country in the world except for North Korea," Lott maintained, and "Castro has shown no repentance; he's running a dictatorship, a repressive dictatorship." There is, of course, no disputing the argument that China's communist leadership has, over two decades of trade with the U.S., enthusiastically embraced economic reform, while Cuba's has for the most part fiercely resisted it even while welcoming European, Latin American and Canadian investors. But even China's leaders themselves might take issue with Lott's exclusion of Beijing from the communist fold — after all, China remains a one-party state and the party that monopolizes power is unrepentantly communist. And everyone from human rights organizations to the State Department concurs that in the sphere of political rather than economic freedoms, the charge of maintaining a repressive dictatorship applies as much to China as to Cuba. "It's very easy to see the distinction," Lott insisted. "And if you all can't see it, I don't know, maybe you're just blind to it." Perhaps, but the Elian Gonzalez debacle and the argument trumpeted in support of the China trade bill that trade is a weapon against repression may actually have helped to swell the ranks of the "blind" on both sides of the aisle on Capitol Hill.