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Mickey Leland and the Cuban Dilemma

By Wayne S. SmithWayne S. Smith is the former chief of the US Interests Section in Havana and the author of ``The Closest of Enemies,'' an account of US-Cuban relations since 1957. / August 21, 1989



EVEN while eulogizing the late congressman Mickey Leland as a dedicated humanitarian, some observers are puzzled as to how someone so interested in human rights could advocate normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. Isn't Fidel Castro, after all, a violator of human rights? It is a question which Elizardo Sanchez, the chairman of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation who has spent years in Mr. Castro's prisons and was this month arrested again, could answer easily. No one understands better than he that there is no contradiction here, that, on the contrary, bringing about a more normal relationship between Cuba and the US and improving the human rights situation in Cuba go hand in hand. Mr. Sanchez argues that only by bringing Cuba back into the hemispheric mainstream, only by ending the siege mentality of the Cuban government, can it be brought around to true respect for human rights.

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Congressman Leland agreed with that, though he came at it from another perspective. Given Cuba's proximity to the US, he once said, it was unlikely that there could be any relaxation of internal discipline there without first some relaxation of tensions between the two countries. Increasing tensions, on the other hand, usually exacerbated the human rights situation, at the same time that it accomplished none of our objectives in other fields.

Both men came early to understand that one usually accomplishes more through reasoned discourse than through sterile hostility and rejection of dialogue. That was why Leland had traveled to Cuba six times to talk to Castro: Not because he agreed with him, but precisely because he did not. And it is for that same reason that the words ``National Reconciliation'' appear in the name of Sanchez's commission. He is no apologist for the Cuban government, but he is perfectly willing to work with it, to begin a dialogue with it - is willing to do so even from his jail cell. He does not turn the other cheek. Rather, in the way of Mahatma Gandhi, he seeks to persuade his oppressors of the error of their ways.

That dialogue works better with Cuba than continued confrontation is demonstrable. The Carter administration, through dialogue, brought about the release of thousands of political prisoners. The Reagan administration, not a single one. George Bush's political speech in Florida last week made plain he is following his predecessor's path.

Leland was deeply pained by US policies and measures against Cuba which he felt were not only counterproductive, but which were inconsistent with US values - indeed, which were themselves inconsistent with respect for human rights. Thus, he introduced legislation to lift the embargo on the sale of medicines and medical supplies. ``The United States,'' he said ``ought never to be in the position of refusing to sell medicines; the only ones hurt by that are the sick and the defenseless.''

Most Americans would agree. In recent testimony before the House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, however, the State Department belittled Leland's efforts as simply a matter of trying to ``chip away at the embargo.'' We will, in other words, continue to refuse medicines.

Leland also saw travel controls as a contradiction of what we stand for. He did not believe the US government ought to tell its citizens that they could not travel to Cuba, nor did he believe it ought to prevent Cuban scholars, artists, and scientists from participating in exchange programs or in some cases even attending professional conferences. On May 12, he wrote to the Secretary of State, noting that the Department of State was denying entry to these Cubans under authority of the Presidential Proclamation of Oct. 4, 1985, which had been issued principally because Havana had suspended operation of the 1884 migration agreement. Yet, Leland pointed out, the Cuban government had in 1887 fully resumed operation of that agreement. Why then had not the proclamation been rescinded? Why were most Cuban academics and artists still being denied entry?

The State Department response was the usual carefully-crafted way of saying that while the US favored the free flow of information and ideas, it wasn't going to permit that with respect to Cuba because it would be counter to our Cuba policy.

Mickey Leland was a fine man, a rational, sensible man of deeply humanitarian instincts. He fought for human rights in Cuba and for a more sensible US policy, and he saw no contradiction between the two efforts. Elizardo Sanchez is also an admirable man, a courageous man willing to be imprisoned or even to die for his principles. He continues the fight for human rights in Cuba, and begs for a more sensible US policy. It is a tragedy that the US government has listened to neither man.