Dayana Mendoza, the delightful Miss Universe 2008, took a tour of Guantánamo Bay Naval Station recently. After seeing the detainee camps, the showers and a dog-handling demonstration, she called the 45-square-mile U.S. base on Cuba's eastern flank a "calm and beautiful" destination. Guantánamo was "really enjoyable," Mendoza said; she "didn't want to leave."
Is Miss Universe onto something? Guantánamo Bay has been a problem in search of a solution almost since its establishment in 1903 as a U.S. naval coaling station. Today an American-built fence separates the U.S. facility from Cuba. Its only gate has been effectively closed since 1959. Abroad, "Gitmo" has became a synonym for the excesses of America's war on terrorism, like "Abu Ghraib" or "black sites." President Obama has promised to remove the remaining detainees from Gitmo to theUnited States or their home countries by the end of January 2010. Separately, he has taken small steps toward reducing U.S. restrictions on trade with Cuba, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has hinted at an eventual end to the U.S. trade embargo. At the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago next week, Obama has a chance to resolve both issues with one step: tear down this wall.
The Cuban revolution's many failures have left a regime weakened and vulnerable, yet capable of sustaining itself for years thanks to isolation and a monopoly grip on every aspect of life. The sea keeps Cubans trapped inside the Castro system, and I well remember on my first visit to Havana in 1992 noting its seeming openness and tranquility. I saw no barbed wire, no machine guns or snarling dogs. Cuba didn't look like East Berlin.
But there is a wall. It is 17.4 miles long, and topped with razor wire. It is the wall—a fence, really—that separates Gitmo from the rest of Cuba. Opening up Guantánamo Bay to free trade with Cuba—effectively lifting the trade embargo, but only here—could transform a symbolic sore spot for America into a free-trade zone where Cubans and Cuban-Americans could leverage trade into a better society.
The way to bring radical change to Cuba is to return Guantánamo Bay to the Cubans—but not to the Castros. The Miami-based diaspora of some 1.6 million Cuban-born people and their offspring could turn the base into something many of them love dearly: a business opportunity. As a tax-free, duty-free, open-trade zone run by Cuban-Americans for the benefit of their brethren on the island, Guantánamo Bay could become a model for a new Cuba, a place where fair dealing, the rule of law and free speech are the norm. By starting businesses catering to Cubans, and later opening factories to employ them, Cuban-Americans would bring normal rights onto Cuban soil. Open the border at Gitmo, initiate trade and the Castro regime's stranglehold would start to crumble.
Pent-up demand for goods is huge in Cuba. The population has been deprived for decades of everything from shoes and bluejeans to auto parts and chicken sandwiches. Cubans would empty a Wal-Mart in hours if they had the chance. But they don't. Private shops were shut in the 1960s, self-employment is tightly restricted (under Raúl Castro, working as a birthday-party clown has been banned) and it is still illegal to employ even one other person. Only the state can run a business: more than 90 percent of Cubans earn a government paycheck, often worth as little as $12 a month, and are dependent on a rice-and-beans rationing system that can't deliver much else.
What can people without money buy in a free-trade zone? Everything they already buy, but cheaper. Ordinary people spend their tiny salaries on overpriced goods in state stores—effectively subsidizing their oppressors. Cuba buys cooking oil abroad for 80 cents a liter and sells it in state-run "dollar stores" at $2.20 a liter. Much of that money comes from abroad, anyway: President Obama has already loosened currency restrictions on Cuban-Americans, who send $1 billion home to the island annually. But the Castro government takes 20 percent of every dollar in commissions, so any increase in spending power for Cubans merely translates into deeper pockets for the regime. A total lifting of the embargo would have the same effect: as long as the state stores hold a monopoly, all trade deals only keep the decrepit Communist Party system running.
Washington does approve one form of trade with Cuba: farm products. In the name of humanitarianism, agribusiness giants are allowed to ship Kansas wheat, Louisiana rice and frozen Arkansas chicken to Cuba. In one Havana store, guarded by a man with a club, I saw pork sausage from North Carolina and turkeys from Virginia—all at hard-currency prices no Cuban could afford without money from abroad. This invisible U.S.-Cuban trade is worth some $800 million a year, and one third of all calories in Cuba now come from the U.S.
Why is this outreach entrusted only to large exporters with big lobbying arms? Why not let America's most devoted apostles of free trade and small business, the Miami Cubans, have a go? If anyone knows how to start from nothing—which is the condition Cuba is in now—it is the island's children abroad. Let the exiles return, if only to sell bluejeans and roof tiles out of Guantánamo.
It may be tempting to cut the knot with one blow, ending all trade and travel restrictions. But don't lift the embargo just to let big U.S. exporters deal directly with the island's jailers. Lift the embargo at Guantánamo Bay, and on our terms: direct trade with ordinary Cubans. Of course this is unrealistic. But it was unrealistic of Ronald Reagan to demand in 1987 that the Soviets tear down the Berlin Wall. He laid bare the tyranny that maintained the wall, and the people tore it down.
If the United States does try to pull down the fence, or open its one gate, Havana will be forced to admit that the border is really sealed (by checkpoints) on the regime's side. Legal objections, like the 1903 treaty restricting Guantánamo Bay to "no other purpose" than refueling ships, are meaningless. Fidel Castro always denounced the treaty as invalid and without force. Let him complain when he starts cashing the rent checks that have been sent punctually by courier for the last 50 years.
Creating a free-trade zone by and for Cubans, opening businesses and erecting homes and perhaps even political institutions is a long-term project. But Raúl Castro has purged his rivals and consolidated power in the past two years, and there's no sign he's going away. Why not use the next few years to build something better at Guantánamo Bay? Like a new Cuba. Tearing down the wall would be a grand gesture, but not an empty one. The regime is vulnerable to a tightly orchestrated lifting of the embargo at Gitmo—that calm and beautiful destination in the Cuban sun.