On the cusp of change in Cuba

For the 50-plus years that Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul, have ruled Cuba, the words "Cuban capitalism" were an oxymoron. Cuba was a state with a centralized economy in which private enterprise was discredited. No more. A recent announcement that the government - employer of well over 90 percent of Cubans - soon will fire about half a million workers and tell them to find private-sector jobs signals a major shift in economic and political philosophy. It is, as well, an opportunity for the United States to establish useful ties to Cuba.

The Cuban government can no longer maintain a state-run economy. It's likely that it never has been able to do so. Large infusions of cash from ideological supporters allowed Cuba to sustain its people over the years. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union funneled untold billions into Cuba. After the Soviet Union's demise, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela used some of his nation's oil profits to prop up the Castros. The world-wide recession put an end to that. Now, Cuba is on its own - and is turning, in part, to the free market for sustenance.

The change is dramatic. The government is easing control of a few areas of the economy and allowing entrepreneurs to set up for-profit small businesses. Cuba has lifted some controls on foreign ownership of real estate and is actively seeking foreign investment and trade partners. The latter is an arena in which the United States should assume a major role. At the moment, though, it legally can not do so.

The long-standing embargo that restricts trade between the United States and Cuba remains in place. The ban has never been effective. Its main accomplishment is negative rather than positive. It keeps U.S. firms out of the Cuban marketplace as others, particularly from Europe and other hemispheric nations, rush in to take advantage of the looser regulations now governing trade and commerce in Cuba.

Congress should end the trade embargo. That would promote U.S. businesses interests in Cuba and expand an already growing network of connections between the countries. The recent lifting of U.S. rules on transfers of money and on travel to Cuba has increased traffic between the nations. An end to the embargo would allow big business to move quickly to gain a foothold in Cuba. It might spur many Cuban-Americans to assist or even bankroll Cuban relatives anxious to enter a workplace where the reward might be wealth-generating profits rather than government handouts. Both would be desirable.

The government, to be sure, still will control Cuba's political apparatus and will watch economic developments closely. It is unlikely to surrender total control, but the new economic freedom should be encouraged and supported. Ending an embargo that long ago outlived any usefulness will allow the United States to fulfill those roles.