Cuba: Carrots and sticks

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

There are two ways in politics to change behavior: power and influence. Power is the stick – using your greater strength to make someone do what you want them to do. Influence is the carrot – encouraging them to want to do it themselves. Sometimes you use both.

We’re somewhere in the middle of all that when it comes to Cuba, as shown in recent weeks by Arkansas’ political leadership.

As a congressman, Gov. Asa Hutchinson supported the Cuban embargo, and as undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security he was part of an administration that enforced it.

But American policy – and American attitudes – are changing. This summer, President Obama announced the two countries were re-opening diplomatic relations that had ended in 1961. Many people who usually disagree with him don’t this time, including many Arkansans. The U.S. embassy is now open there, though the 55-year-old trade embargo will remain until Congress ends it.

Last week, Hutchinson returned from a trip to that island nation saying it’s time to gradually end the embargo as Cuba modernizes its economy and politics – especially when doing so would give Arkansas’ rice, poultry and pork producers access to a large, nearby market.

Hutchinson is hardly alone in this viewpoint. Traveling with him were business leaders from Tyson and Riceland Foods; Randy Veach, president of Arkansas Farm Bureau and a Mississippi County farmer; Dr. Donald Bobbitt, president of the University of Arkansas System, and others. In June, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce coordinated a trip to Cuba for about 40 Arkansans.

Two other Arkansas political leaders have been outspoken in support of more open relations with Cuba. Sen. John Boozman has passed through a Senate committee a bill that would allow goods to be sold to Cuba on credit rather than cash only, which is a challenge in an impoverished nation. He also is co-sponsoring the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would loosen travel restrictions but hasn’t moved much since its introduction. Rep. Rick Crawford, whose eastern Arkansas 1st District depends on agriculture, also supports opening up trade with that country.

On the other side is Sen. Tom Cotton, who opposes ending the embargo. He says a change in policy only rewards a dictatorship that hasn’t changed itself, and won’t have to change because it’s being propped up by trade with the United States. Cuba must become freer first, he says.

So Hutchinson, Boozman and Crawford’s position could be summarized as, “After 55 years of mostly stick, it’s time for more carrot.” Cotton’s position is, “Stick with the stick. The carrot becomes available if Cuba changes.”

Power is the language everyone understands, and sometimes it makes sense to use it. It’s not possible to come and reason together with the ISIS beheaders in Syria and Iraq. However, power should be focused on threats, which Cuba no longer is now that it’s lost its Soviet benefactor. Now it’s just a poor country with a population of 11 million – 1/29th the size of the United States.

Exercising influence is softer, subtler and harder. Sometimes the effort merely masks weakness, sometimes it can be an excuse for inaction, and sometimes it fails miserably. But it can do things that power alone can’t always do. Through influence, people enact permanent change because they realize it’s unquestionably in their best interest, not because they are trying temporarily to avoid the pain you inflict.

Consider what a more open relationship with Cuba would bring. American companies would flood the island. Local entrepreneurs who under communism have eked out a living through their wits would use their talents to become job creators. When 84-year-old Raul Castro dies or steps away from power, his successor will face great pressure to continue raising Cuba’s living standards. Because an international business can’t be run without the internet, Cuba will become increasingly wired, and, unlike China, it won’t have the means to control it. Missionaries will descend on that hungry Caribbean nation 90 miles from Florida’s Key West. Churches will sprout, as they have throughout China, and the Cuban government will not be able to stop it even if it tries.

Hutchinson, Boozman, Crawford and Cotton all want Cuba to reach that place. They only disagree about the right path. Stick with the stick? Or offer some carrots – and rice, and poultry, and pork, and ideas?

4 thoughts on “Cuba: Carrots and sticks

  1. From someone who has been traveling to and been writing about Cuba for almost 25 years–I say your piece is well-thought-out and offers an excellent perspective. I’d give you an A, but you have Fidel’s age wrong–he’s actually 89.

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