Time to stop treating Cuba like an untouchable

THE Soviet ``evil empire'' is no more, President Ronald Reagan has told us. Mikhail Gorbachev is now ``a close friend,'' and US-Soviet relations are at their best in recent memory. The other huge communist power, the People's Republic of China, is no longer a major concern of even the most fervent conservatives, and Americans travel there by the thousands.

Wouldn't 1988, then, be a good year to do something about repairing relations with Cuba? For nearly three decades, the United States has pursued an economic embargo of that Caribbean nation and by suspending diplomatic relations has implied it isn't really there.

But Cuba is there, a 750-mile-long island less than 100 miles from the Florida coast. It's hardly an insignificant dot, and it could be a valuable trading partner with the US.

An entire generation of Cubans has grown up believing that the US government is the personification of imperialism, just as a generation of Americans has bought the line that Cuba is to be ignored, at best; vilified, at worst.

It is not ignored, however, by Britain, Japan, France, Italy, West Germany, Canada, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland, and other US allies that maintain normal relations with Cuba.

More than 100,000 Canadians flock to Cuba's beaches every winter, not for communist indoctrination, but because the price is right, the climate ideal, and the people friendly. They are joined by Spaniards, West Germans, Italians - more than 200,000 foreign tourists in 1987.

The economic blockade has not been the success Mr. Reagan has claimed it to be. Certainly, it has inconvenienced the Cubans and caused shortages. It is one reason Habaneros still drive pre-revolution Studebakers, Packards, and Fords, keeping them running with engine parts modified from Soviet tractors.

But the blockade is a mere nuisance now. Cubans have learned to live with it.

It could be argued that the Cubans were solidly in the Soviet camp before the embargo began, but it is still curious why Washington has, for 30 years, treated the island as though it were radioactive. US policy prohibits Americans from going to Cuba without government approval.

Cuba's deputy foreign minister, Pelayo Ruenes, raises an interesting question: ``Why is Cuba singled out? Americans are free to visit the Soviet Union. They go to the People's Republic of China.... Yet you are not even allowed to visit here as an individual. Are we, a nation of 10 million, so dangerous?''

The Cuban economy, still strongly supported by the USSR, is not thriving. Neither is it the stagnant failure Reagan claims it to be. Visitors to Havana find the city's old neighborhoods undergoing major restoration. Roads throughout the island are in good repair, telephones work, and you can drink the water. People are well dressed, there is no begging, medical care has been confirmed by independent agencies to be the best in Latin America.

Certainly, there are those who would like to leave. They do not seem to include the thousands who walk along La Rampa in downtown Havana, licking ice cream cones to ease the humidity and looking to see what films (a great many of them from the US) are playing.

The prerevolution automobiles are joined by a growing number of Polish-built Polski Fiats; by the Soviet-made Lada, itself a Fiat offspring; and by Toyota trucks and vans. It is simply not a nation in decay.

Cuban tourism officials seem puzzled, not angered, by their relations with Washington. Liana Blain, director of international tourism with the state-run Cubatur, admits that ``the US would be a prime target for us. But the political situation ... of your government would not allow it, and I don't see that changing with Mr. Reagan. We would be pleased to welcome Americans tomorrow if it were possible.'' The Cuban government, from Fidel Castro on down, has hinted in recent years it would be agreeable to a thaw in relations. Mr. Castro has released political prisoners, has met with Roman Catholic officials from the US, and has affirmed that religion has a place in Cuba.

A Cuban national baseball team competed in the Pan American Games in Indianapolis last year, and a US team was in Havana later in the summer. The Tropicana dancers - from Havana's famous nightclub of that name - were in Los Angeles in June of this year as part of a tour of the US and Canada. Not surprisingly, the Immigration and Naturalization Service cut short their visit, saying they had stayed too long. Still, it appears as though in sports and the arts an improvement of relations is possible.

Reagan has met with Mr. Gorbachev in Washington and in Moscow. He has been to China. He has never even talked of a meeting with Castro. Indeed, a State Department official recently said in a telephone interview that ``we have been looking at improved enforcement of the ... embargo in light of the fact that there are some holes....''

Washington bureaucrats have become fond of the folksy line ``If it ain't broke, don't fix it.'' It's an excuse for maintaining the status quo.

Using the same vernacular, one might wonder, ``If it ain't worked for 30 years, ain't it time to try something new?''

Jay Berman, a journalism professor at California State University, Fullerton, has traveled extensively throughout Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America.

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