After 37 Years, It's Time for a New US Policy Toward Cuba

THIS week marks the 37th anniversary of Fidel Castro Ruz's coming to power in Cuba. It is a good time to reflect on the futility of American policy toward this revolution on our doorstep. The United States has tried time and again, by fair means and foul, to overthrow Mr. Castro. Rarely has a policy crashed in so many repeated failures.

Castro has outlasted all other dictators who were his contemporaries. He is the champion survivor of the 20th century.

To most people this record would suggest that the US should reconsider its policy toward Cuba. But not to the people who are, and have been, in charge of that policy. It is one of the few issues about which the White House and Congress sing from the same page in perfect harmony.

Dogged adherence to this tired old song continues despite the fact that Cuba presents no threat to the US. It never did. Soviet missiles in Cuba were a threat, but that was a US-Soviet problem, not a US-Cuban problem. In the trenchant words of former Sen. William Fulbright (D) of Arkansas, Cuba has been "a thorn in the flesh, but not a dagger in the heart."

In years past, Washington said that Cuba must cut its ties with the Soviet Union as the price of normal relations with the US. Those ties disappeared along with the Soviet Union, but the US did not budge. The current price of normal relations is that Cuba must show greater respect for human rights and take concrete steps toward democracy. This is a classic case of raising the bar that a country has to get over in order to win Washington's favor.

There is no progress toward democracy and human rights in Cuba; and given Cuban history, there is unlikely to be much even if Castro departs.

In the meantime, the US is steadily becoming isolated in world opinion. In each of the last two years, the United Nations General Assembly has expressed its concern about the US embargo of Cuba. In 1994, the vote was 101 to 2 in favor of a resolution considering the necessity of ending the embargo. In 1995, a stronger resolution condemning the embargo passed by a vote of 117 to 3. The two countries who supported the embargo in 1994 were the US and Israel. In 1995, this pair was joined by Uzbekistan. No member of NATO, no country in Latin America stood with the US.

That ought to give pause to a country whose independence was rooted in "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind." There is precedent for paying attention to the UN. In 1973, during the US dispute with Panama over the Canal, the Security Council voted 13 to 1 in favor of a pro- Panamanian resolution. The one nay vote came from the US; Great Britain abstained, but no other country supported the American position. Four years later, there was a Panama Canal treaty.

Supporters of current US policy are horrified by the thought of embracing Castro. But policy can be moderated without an embrace. There is a difference between accepting a government you don't like and embracing it. The crucial question about Cuba policy is not whether the Cuban government is good or bad (it's bad), but how to moderate its behavior.

We have not modified its behavior, and we have alienated the rest of the world by our efforts to do so. The first requirement is to modify our policy. Little changes can be made one at a time:

*First of all, travel restrictions should be lifted. These restrictions are not as tight as they used to be, but they are still in place. And they are inappropriate for a country that has made such a fuss (and rightly so) about freedom to travel.

*Radio Marti and TV Marti, the US anti-Castro broadcast operations, ought to be ended. They are ineffective irritants. The TV is regularly jammed and is not seen in Cuba. Florida radio stations can be heard in Cuba anyway.

*Lift the US trade embargo. Especially stop trying to enforce it with respect to third countries, or with respect to US subsidiaries operating out of third countries. All this does is irritate the third countries as an infringement on their sovereignty (which it is). As for the embargo itself, it would probably be seen to have an effect that is more symbolic than real. The Cubans have no money to buy anything American companies want to sell. And Cuba is a poor credit risk.

But the main thing needed in Washington is a change in attitude. The one that has prevailed for all these 37 years is unbecoming a great power with pretensions to world leadership.

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