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The mighty U.S. eagle snatched up a couple minnows here in Key West this week, wielding freedom’s most powerful weaponagainst Communism, imprisonment. The minnows, otherwise peaceful, law-abiding Americans, face 15 years in the slammer, a sentence longer than most felons get for rape, bank robbery or aggravated assault. For people well into middle age, as these are, it may easily be a life sentence.

What did the accused do to risk spending the rest of their lives in prison? …slap a tax collector? …say the “B” word to an airport shoe inspector? …poison a rice rat?  Surely they have committed some grave felony. They must have beaten someone, or defrauded a blue haired widow, or plundered a corporation. But no, it’s nothing like that. Disobedience is the awful crime.

They stand charged with sailing to Havana and knocking back a few Piña Coladas against the wishes of our masters in Washington. Unfortunately for them, they were also the ringleaders of a gang of sailors who raced their boats to the nefarious Cuban rendezvous. Thus did they threaten the security and peace of the free world and paint targets on their foreheads for the federal legal snipers.

That the others in the gang haven’t been charged emphasizes the motive for this prosecution. It isn’t a case of punishing evildoers. It’s an opportunity to extract cowering obedience from other Americans who think they might like to visit Cuba.

It appears these defendants were chosen because they lack the resources or influence to put up a serious fight. They will enjoy the services of a federal attorney, which is much more like getting a blindfold before they shoot you than getting a full suit of body armor. Facing a potential life sentence one could hardly blame them for copping a plea. Going to trial with an attorney who is paid by the same outfit that wants you behind bars is a bold, if not reckless, legal strategy.

At this point you may be confused. I certainly am. I’m confused about which of the two countries, Cuba or the United States, is the brutal, authoritarian dictatorship that spurns human rights and operates to benefit an influential political elite. Officials of both countries claim to be dedicated to liberty and justice for all. The U.S. is clearly more successful along those lines. But as the U.S. government attempts to undermine the Cuban dictator, the U.S government behaves more and more like him. Travel and go to prison. Send money and go to prison. Disobey and go to prison.

The Cuban government is a model of political repression and backward socialist economic theory. Castro’s prisons bulge with dissenters as ours do with potheads. A look at Havana reveals what you can expect from 50 years of rent control — a vast unpainted slum. Fifty years of getting everything “free” from the government has produced an economy where the best opportunities for young people involve twenty minutes alone with a middle-aged foreigner.

Castro deposed a corrupt system of economic privilege. He replaced it with a corrupt system of political privilege. Entirely political systems are by their nature corrupt, because political success is not earned like money, with hard work, fair dealing and integrity. Political capital is gained by pandering to the politically powerful.

Because everyone does not participate willingly in such a game, those who want to quit must be kept in by force. If people could vote with their feet, only the freeloaders and flunkies would remain. In all such systems the scum rather than the cream floats to the top.

Castro stays in power as all socialist dictators do, by controlling the economy, rewarding mindless obedience and crushing opponents. Socialist governments are always run by thugs in the end, because nothing less than thuggery will keep them running.

In trying to harm Castro our government is acting exactly as El Jefe himself would ― forbidding free citizens from traveling freely, and crushing disobedience. Our government is opposing an unjust dictator by becoming unjust and dictatorial — moving ruthlessly against the innocent for the benefit of a small politically influential group.

Our government claims to want nothing but freedom and prosperity for Cuba. But promoting freedom by arresting people and confiscating their property is like improving morale with daily floggings.

If the United States government wants to promote freedom and economic reform in Cuba it would open our borders to Cubans. It would not help Castro by ordering our Coast Guard to hunt down and return escapees to his national detention camp. It would allow private citizens to travel freely anywhere and do business with anyone. It would stop brutalizing our own innocent citizens to please a small, influential political group.

We can only promote freedom by example. We will never set Cuba free by putting Americans in jail. Jailing dissenters is what the bad guys do.

With our borders open it wouldn’t take the Cuban people long to recognize the benefits of free markets, open government and just courts. They would soon insist on all three for themselves.

If freedom and prosperity are what we want for ourselves and our Cuban neighbors we must insist our government release the Key West sailors and all Cuban detainees, and end the failed embargo.

Only a free nation can spread freedom.