“Bomb them with Sears catalogs.”
That’s what former Idaho Senator Steve Symms proposed in the 1980s: it was his solution to defeat Communism. His point was that trade, not armed conflict, is the quickest way to end totalitarian dictatorships.
Governor Asa Hutchinson apparently shares this view, as demonstrated by his recent trip to Cuba. The Arkansas Times reports that the governor “hoped the Cuban government would lessen centralized control and that ‘expanded political freedoms’ would result from expanded trade.”
He’s right to think this. Daniel Griswold of the Cato Institute explains how trade leads to more political freedoms:
Increased trade and economic integration promote civil and political freedoms directly by opening a society to new technology, communications, and democratic ideas. Along with the flow of consumer and industrial goods often come books, magazines, and other media with political and social content. Foreign investment and services trade create opportunities for foreign travel and study, allowing citizens to experience first-hand the civil liberties and more representative political institutions of other nations. Economic liberalization provides a counterweight to governmental power and creates space for civil society.
That sounds nice in theory, but does it work in practice? Griswold studied this question, and here’s what he concluded:
A more formal statistical comparison shows a significant, positive correlation between economic freedom, including the freedom to engage in international commerce, and political and civil freedom. The statistical correlation remains strong even when controlling for a nation’s per capita gross domestic product, consistent with the theory that economic openness reinforces political liberty directly and independently of its effect on growth and income levels.
Governor Hutchinson used his trip to push for expanded access to American agricultural goods by Cuban consumers. If this happens, this greater access will certainly help Arkansas farmers, businesses, and workers. It will also help Cuba’s residents, who will have wider food choices at better prices.
These things are all good things, but expanding political and civil freedom is a far more important outcome. Freeing up trade with Cuba is the best way to end the repression that Cubans suffer under every day.
While Sears catalogs don’t exist any longer (thus demonstrating the extraordinary power of change that free-market capitalism brings), Sen. Symms’s sentiment remains as true now as it was during the Reagan Administration. The best way to bring political freedom to Cuba is to let Americans trade freely with Cubans. Governor Hutchinson’s trip was a good step in the right direction.