Treat Castro as Irrelevant

LET'S rethink American policy toward Cuba.

The Soviet Union has disintegrated. Albania has abandoned communism and rejoined the West. Even North Korea is negotiating nuclear arms control questions with South Korea and the United States. There has been a remarkable outbreak of peace in Central America, first in Nicaragua and now in El Salvador, two countries where Cuba was accused of roiling the waters for so long. Surely, change is about to come to Cuba as well.

But not, apparently, if Fidel Castro can help it. He has lost his multibillion-dollar annual subsidies from the Soviet Union. His economy is a shambles. He is using horses and oxen for transport because there is no gasoline for trucks. He is cracking down even harder on dissent. And he continues to exhort his people to keep the true faith of Marxism.

Observers (including this one) have been mistaken before in predicting Mr. Castro's imminent fall. Tough Latin American dictators have shown that they can survive a great deal. Castro is preeminently a survivor, but his prognosis is still bleak.

For more than 30 years, American policy toward Cuba has been paralyzed by the obsession of removing Castro from power. This in turn has fed Castro's paranoia and formed the basis of his anti-Yankee propaganda. And so the American and Cuban views of each other have become mutually reinforcing. This has made it difficult for Americans to focus on what our real interests in Cuba are. Now, even if Castro is not on the way out, he has become irrelevant, and maybe we can see our interests more clearly.

They are not very great. They require that Cuba not be a threat to its neighbors (including the US), and that it not provide a base for any hostile foreign power. Those conditions now exist.

In addition, the US has an interest in economic and cultural relations with Cuba. At one time, the US had large investments in Cuba and a profitable trade. Castro nationalized the investments, and the US ended the trade through imposing an economic embargo. (The trade would no doubt have dwindled anyway because of the reorientation of Cuba's economy to the Soviet Union and because of a Cuban shortage of hard currency.) There was also at one time a lively exchange of tourists, students, artists, writers, and baseball players.

It would be nice if Cuba had a democratic government that respected human rights, but American interests have flourished in many countries with less than ideal standards in this regard.

THERE are four steps the US can take now. None is very dramatic, but they would put US policy on a sounder basis for the long term:

One, end Radio-TV Marti, the anti-Castro broadcasting operation from offshore. It is an unnecessary irritant that we should never have started to begin with. Many Cubans can get American broadcasts anyway.

Two, end trade restrictions. This won't result in much trade, because the Cubans don't have any money (and are too poor a credit risk for loans); but it would be a useful symbolic step.

Three, end travel restrictions. This doesn't mean opening the country to Cuban immigration; it means recognizing that a Cuban participating in an academic or scientific meeting in the US is not a threat to our national security.

Four, reestablish full diplomatic relations, ending the charade of an "interests section" in the Swiss Embassy in Havana.

It will be objected that these steps would help Castro out of a jam. Actually, they would only put Cuban policy in a sensible framework to position us to deal with Castro's successor. We ought not to try to pick that successor.

The Miami exiles will want American help to return, overthrow Castro, and form a government. The Bush administration may be tempted to provide that help. But it would be a mistake. The exiles talk about democracy, but what they really mean is a return to the status quo ante - a status quo ante that produced Castro in the first place.

The exiles might be able to pull this off even without help from Washington. And the Cuban people will have to wait a while longer for a decent government.

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