Florida's Anti-Cuban Trade Law Is an Insult to Capitalism

Odebrecht, the giant Brazilian company that has a $225 million contract to help build the new runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, is suing the state over a histrionic law that Rick Scott signed last month in Miami, banning state and local governments from doing major business with companies with commercial ties to Cuba.

The company is right to sue, and a victory against this ill-conceived law would be a victory not just for a Brazilian multinational but for the all the free-market capitalist principles we demonize Fidel Castro for not supporting.

The law -- obviously cynical pandering to a hardline Cuban-American base -- flies in the face of the conservative, business-friendly environment its Republican champions claim to represent. Promoting state-endorsed ideological positions over the free flow of money to competitive corporations? Sounds like something Cuba would do.

The legislation states that a state or local government agency in Florida may not enter into contracts worth more than $1 million with a company that does business with Cuba, either directly or through a far-flung subsidiary. It also applies to Syria, under the reasoning that both of those governments have "terrorist" regimes that should not be given implicit aid or support through the spending of government dollars.

But first of all, Syria and Cuba can't easily be lumped together without some serious concerns.

Syria, a country whose belligerent dictator is engaged in a moment-by-moment bloody standoff with his own citizens and, to some degree, the entire Western world, poses a major problem on a global scale. Governments feel they must act quickly to stem the internal bloodshed in that country, while hampered by Russia and China's infuriating refusal to take a stand against Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad (which is motivated largely by the fact that Russia is channeling megatons of weaponry into that country, as it once did with Cuba). The options are sparse: The U.N. peacekeepers in the country haven't had much power to keep peace without an increase of NATO troops and more bloodshed. Neighboring governments like Turkey are not amenable to an external solution, like providing safe corridors for refugees to flee and rebel armies to regroup. The American populace does not want another country to bomb. So we turn to sanctions. We refuse to provide aid. We cut off commercial ties and let Assad slowly starve or resign.

Cuba, on the other hand, has been starving for decades. It started out with a similar dictatorial standoff, but relations have become less tense (at least as far as the rest of the world is concerned) in recent years. There are more urgent conflicts to be attended to. President Obama, who while labeled a socialist was most likely listening to a diverse cabal of foreign-policy advisers, recently relaxed travel restrictions for Cuban-American families. We are left with an outdated embargo that pleases those with intimate memories of the regime's past horrors but is seen on the global stage, by our country's friends and allies, as a perplexing relic.

Our isolationist attitude toward Cuba faces even more of a challenge from the globalized, free-market society that's largely based on American innovation and a diplomacy that defers to capitalism (just look at the profits coming into American oil companies from countries around the world, or how worried McDonald's is about the current European slowdown). And behold the fruits: A company like Odebrecht, based in growth-crazy Brazil (a country that engineered and built an entire city just for its national capital), with multiple international offshoots (the local outfit is based in Coral Gables), seeks business wherever it can find it.

The Cuban government's dream has already failed. It's not a workers' paradise or an outpost of Soviet military might. It's a beat-up relic that relies on Western capitalism. They still drive those old Pontiacs: made in America. They recently opened up their ocean floor to oil drilling: by a Spanish oil company, Repsol. And now, they want to upgrade the Port of Mariel: They turned to Odebrecht, a capitalist outfit best-suited for the job.

This is all the ideological defeat the regime needs. It's pumping its state money straight into somebody else's multinational. It's capitalist, whether it likes it or not. And as for calling it a "terrorist regime," as an angry Floridian lawmaker recently did? That's up for debate. But with countries like Syria active on the world stage and paranoia stretched thin, there's no need to halt free trade further when it's going toward civil development in a small, impoverished country whose citizens would probably love an ice-cold Coke.

Shortly after Scott signed the bill into law, he embarrassed his fellow Republicans by saying on a radio talk show that it was unenforceable unless the federal government enacted a similar law. He quickly backtracked to appease his terrorist-hating base, but he was probably right. This kind of issue is a federal one, to be decided by sovereign nations on a diplomatic scale. Maybe Scott should have trusted his gut before he signed the thing.

Especially since we elected the poor fool on the basis of his experience as a businessman. If it was acceptable for Rick Scott to preside over a company that committed hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicare fraud, then brush off questions by pleading the Fifth dozens of times, all in the nature of capitalism? It's OK for a multinational company to take business wherever it can find it. In fact, it's what Scott has been telling us will save our state: Run it like a business.

Free-trade evangelists believe that markets are the best diplomatic tool. No business in its right mind would avoid cash flow because of philosophical disputes or fear-mongering. For hypocrisy of that scale, you have to look to Cuba. Or Florida.


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