Castro & Co. are best kept at arm’s length
Economic growth in Latin America is at risk if tyrants are welcomed as legitimate leaders. As my family learned in Panama, poverty and tyranny go hand in hand
Juan Williams, The Wall Street Journal
April's Sixth Summit of the Americas generated salacious headlines about Secret Service agents and prostitutes. There was less attention to news that will have lasting impact on regional economies - the struggle over U.S. opposition to inviting Fidel Castro and Cuba to join the summit. The president of Ecuador boycotted the summit because of the U.S. stand. The presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua are threatening to boycott the next one.
There is a temptation for U.S. policy makers to just give in on inviting Cuba. Fidel Castro is old and in poor health. The Cold War is over. Despite the official U.S. ban on travel to Cuba, American academics and tourists romanticize Cuba's revolutionary past and visit in growing numbers.
But it will be a mistake for the U.S. to welcome a nondemocratic nation run by a dictatorship to join the summit, which was first held in Washington in 1994 and brings together leaders from North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Economic growth in Latin America -a region that is the U.S.'s fastest-growing trade partner- is at risk if dictators are welcomed as legitimate leaders.
Secure markets are necessary for successful trade policy, and investment cannot take root when dictators can usurp property rights. Real, vigorous trade also leads to global investors and an educated workforce -all of which threaten dictators' power. That is why the U.S. stance on Cuba is so important for the region.
This spring brought a personal reminder of how important it is. I was born in Panama, in a poor city, Colon. For my birthday this year, I walked around there for the first time since my mother brought three children, including me (as a 4-year-old), to Brooklyn, N.Y. No joke, we came to this country as added freight on a banana boat.
I was never quite sure why I waited so long to go back to Colon. My wife and sons also accompanied me and, ever wiser than his old man, my youngest son, Raffi, said my reluctance to visit might have had something to do with the fear of the intense, ugly poverty that eats up people.
There is a lot to fear about Colon. Crime and drugs are common. People live camped out on balconies. Huge bugs and vermin scurry down trash-strewn streets. I visited the apartment building where my mother took me as a newborn. It now looks like a jail: Iron gates cover individual apartment doors to stop robbery.
The Panamanian economy is growing but not fast enough to lift the people of Colon out of this crushing poverty. There's a widespread belief there that the government has given up on the city and would just as soon bulldoze whole sections so they can rebuild on top of the ruins. In fact, Panama has less poverty than most Latin nations. But even here economic hopelessness has a history of being a breeding ground for dictators playing to the frustrations of the poor.
The reason my father insisted that my mother take the children out of Panama in the 1950s was fear of a Castro-like, populist dictator, Arnulfo Arias. A Nazi supporter during World War II, Arias later took businesses away from U.S. and European investors by insisting on Panamanian ownership. He profited from stoking racial antagonism against Asian and black immigrants who built the canal and made Panama a center of international trade. Arias even tried to divest black West Indians, such as my father, of Panamanian citizenship.
Panamanian dictators Omar Torrijos and Manuel Noriega followed Arias’s phony populist politics to enrich themselves. Noriega’s corrupt regime encouraged the drug trade even as he denounced capitalism.
The U.S. Panama free trade agreement passed by Congress last year lowered tariffs to create new investment opportunities for American businesses. The agreement helps Panama by improving the local job market and it helps the U.S. by opening markets to American goods.
Even in Colon, with all of its problems, people see hope in capitalism. The local economy is helped by the commerce that comes with sitting on one end of the Panama Canal Zone. That free-trade zone is the largest free port in the Western Hemisphere and the second-largest in the world.
My life's major turn away from poverty came thanks to my father's vision of his children escaping a despot like Arias. That dream of a better life is alive throughout Latin America. To romanticize any dictator is to kill those dreams by condemning poor kids in Latin America, like me, to tyrants and the burden of limited education and economic opportunity.
When we Americans have the opportunity to help neighbors prosper while standing for freedom, we ought to take it. Global capitalism and defiance of dictators are not mutually exclusive ideas. In fact, they work best when they work together.
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