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Top GOP Lawmaker Rejects Key Obama Cuba Argument

"Cuba is more like North Korea than it is China..."

Whenever the issue of the Cuban embargo comes up, some invariably argue that the U.S. should do business with Cuba, because it already does business with other communist countries like China and Vietnam.

President Barack Obama himself made that argument as he announced a series of policy changes toward Cuba, including an easing of trade and travel regulations, the possibility of formal relations, and even a discussion with Congress about ending the embargo.

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 10.23.28 AM House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) criticized the Obama administration for trying to open up to Cuba, which he said is more like North Korea that China or Vietnam. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

"Consider that for more than 35 years, we've had relations with China — a far larger country also governed by a Communist Party," Obama said. "Nearly two decades ago, we re-established relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation."

But late Wednesday, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said Cuba is far different from those other countries, and U.S. companies are more free to operate in China and Vietnam.

"The president compared our economic relationship with Cuba to that of China and Vietnam," he said. "But in China and Vietnam, while communist, at least foreign firms can hire and recruit staff directly, without their pay going to and bolstering the government, as it does in Cuba."

"In this respect, Cuba is more like North Korea than it is China," Royce said. He said both North Korea and Cuba extract most of people's wages for government use, and predicted that this is why efforts to boost trade and travel to Cuba will fail to help regular Cuban people.

"Ordinary Cubans will not be economically or politically empowered unless Cuba's economic system changes; until President Obama’s announcement today, the United States had been demanding this change," he said.

Royce's arguments are likely to be echoed by both Republicans and Democrats in Congress as they examine Obama's policy changes. Supporters of the embargo have long argued that it was put in place in response to the expropriation of $1.8 billion worth of U.S. property, and now exists only as a lever to resolve those claims, and to push Cuba for democratic and human rights reforms.

But many argued Wednesday that the Obama administration got very little in return from Cuba for its promise to build up the diplomatic and economic relationship between the two countries. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Wednesday that Obama "conceded everything" and got no commitments back from Cuba, a point Royce echoed.

"It is still unclear what steps the Cuban government is taking in return for this change in U.S. policy," Royce said. "It doesn't look like much."

Many have also noted that while the U.S. was able to expand its relations with China and Vietnam, that was possible after a two-way negotiation in which those countries made concessions to the United States. China, for example, was able to join the World Trade Organization in 2000 with the blessing of the U.S. after it made several commercial concessions.

And the reconciliation with Vietnam happened after negotiations that included commercial issues but also a resolution of POW/MIA issues from the Vietnam War, as well as human rights.

In the new Congress, incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has promised to hold hearings on Obama's Cuba announcement to discuss these sorts of issues.

"The new U.S. policy announced by the administration is no doubt sweeping, and as of now there is no real understanding as to what changes the Cuban government is prepared to make," he said Wednesday. "We will be closely examining the implications of these major policy changes in the next Congress."

One last thing…
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