It's High Time To Embrace Havana

HAVANA has signaled that it is ready and willing to cooperate with Washington, and that it would welcome American investors. It's high time for the United States to reconcile with Cuba - even if Fidel Castro Ruz is still ``maximum leader'' there. Americans have neither a power motive nor a moral right to continue a hard line toward Cuba. Indeed, there are material and moral reasons why the Clinton administration should hang up the gloves and stretch out its hand.

So long as Cuba was the base for communizing the Americas and a Soviet spearhead in Africa, Washington had reason to put a strangle hold on Mr. Castro. Cuba no longer threatens the Americas, and its leader intimidates no one when he shows up at inter-American conferences wearing his military garb.

It is only a question of time before Castro is out. There is no point in squeezing the Cuban public to pressure Fidel to leave. No one must prove the failure of centralized economies.

How bad are things in Cuba? It is not so terrible that bikes are replacing aged autos, but fuel for all purposes is in short supply. Food intake is down. Healthy living is more difficult. Do Americans have any reason to want ordinary Cubans to suffer?

The communist system makes life harder. A young couple living in Puerto Rico went back to Cuba to visit their parents and found a gaping hole in their apartment roof. They couldn't obtain materials to plug the hole. No state enterprise would do the job. The situation is worse than in the old USSR where bribes procured both materials and repairmen. Informers and police agents are thicker in Cuba than in the USSR. Cuban authorities punish what Soviets winked at.

But can Washington expect that squeezing Castro more will compel him to give up police controls? It is more likely that repression will intensify so long as he feels pressured.

AMERICANS owe Cubans something. Since 1898 US policies toward Cuba have tended to be paternalistic, exploitative, and counterproductive - for Cubans and for the US. Washington imposed the Platt Amendment on the Cuban constitution, giving the US the right to interfere in Cuban affairs; it demanded Guantanamo for a US naval base; it sent in US forces intermittently to establish order. The US backed the repressive regime of Fulgencio Batista that Castro overthrew.

US policies helped bring Castro's revolt and then push Castro into Moscow's embrace. The CIA, with Mafia connivance, tried to assassinate Castro; it organized guerrillas to invade Cuba.

These affairs nearly blew up in our faces when Moscow dispatched missiles and nuclear warheads to Cuba in 1962, ostensibly to save Cuba from a US attack. When John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev stepped back from the brink, they groped toward detente. Not so Washington and Havana.

Many Cuban refugees in Miami and elsewhere want Castro's head. They urge President Clinton to tighten the noose. Many exiles have suffered both tangible and intangible losses due to Castro. But anger and revenge are not good counselors now.

The US should announce it is embarking on a strategy to improve conditions for the Cuban people and to normalize relations with Havana. Mr. Clinton could test the waters with initial concessions, as the Nixon White House did when it offered an olive branch to Beijing in 1971. But the Nixon team expected and got Chinese reciprocity before full normalization took place. With a smaller, weaker country such as Cuba, the US should not press hard for an overnight quid pro quo. Noblesse oblige would be a better principle than tit-for-tat reciprocity.

Breaking the ice could melt those rigid structures that constrain Cuban spirit and enterprise. The White House may fear that creative diplomacy could cost Clinton Florida's electoral votes in 1996. But if the barriers between Cubans and their neighbors fall, mutual gain could supplant mutual pain. The right and honorable move abroad could also be smart politics at home. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHELCSPS.COM.

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