Don't Isolate Cuba - Open It to New Ideas

Allowing trade and other exchanges would prepare Cubans for a peaceful transition to a post-Castro society

CUBA will eventually have a democratic government and a market-based economy. Of that there is no doubt. The questions are only when and how. Sooner is clearly better, but it is even more important that the transition be peaceful, and that a foundation be established for stable democracy and economic advance.

The Eastern Europe experience of the past five years is instructive. Former Soviet bloc countries that enjoyed relatively open relations with the United States and Western Europe - Hungary and Czechoslovakia, for example - have achieved far greater economic and political success than those that remained closed and isolated - like Albania and Bulgaria.

In Eastern Europe, internal change has been facilitated and enriched by prior international opening. The same is likely to be true for Cuba.

Instead of moving to further isolate Cuba, Washington should be promoting open international exchange with the island. The freest possible flow of people, ideas, and information should be the US objective. This may or may not be the fastest way to achieve a new government on the island, but it is almost certainly the best way to foster democracy and economic progress following a change in regime.

The Clinton administration should offer President Fidel Castro Ruz a simple and straightforward deal. The US would lift its embargo against Cuba on one condition: Havana must end all restrictions on the free movement of people and goods in the rest of the world. The embargo would, in short, be lifted in both directions.

If the deal were accepted, public and private institutions in the US should seek quickly to ensure that telephone service, fax machines, and personal computers are widely available in Cuba. They should also establish a massive program of fellowship that would enable large numbers of Cubans to enroll in graduate and undergraduate programs at American universities and begin learning the skills needed to make a modern society work.

Financing should also be made available to encourage US universities and independent research outfits to establish training programs within Cuba - as several other countries have begun to do on a small scale.

Given the critical importance that economic management (for political stability as well as economic progress) has had in the success or failure of every transition from communism, particular emphasis should be given to the study of economics, business management, industrial organization, labor relations, and related fields. Expertise in all of these crucial areas is virtually nonexistent in Cuba today.

Does Cuba really need this kind of massive training effort? Aren't there, after all, an extraordinary number of highly qualified Cuban Americans who - once a new government were in place - could be counted on to return to Cuba and take on the task of managing the political and economic transformation? Ironically, the existence of this large contingent of well-trained exiles increases the importance of building the skills of those who have remained in Cuba.

The exile community should be encouraged to invest in Cuba, to start new businesses and practice their professions there. But it is the Cubans in Cuba today who must oversee the transition, who must take primary responsibility for reshaping the Cuban economic and political systems, who must make Cubans feel comfortable with the radical changes that will take place in their country.

It would be dangerous and self-defeating if most Cubans ended up thinking that democracy and market economics were foreign implants.

But, some would say, isn't this the wrong time to consider a major change in US policy toward Cuba? Aren't Mr. Castro's days already numbered? Why negotiate now? Shouldn't Washington at least wait until the present crisis in its relations with Cuba is resolved?

It is fanciful to try to predict when Castro will leave power. This proposal for free exchange makes sense whether he departs next week or finds a way to stick around for another decade or two. Moreover, US-Cuban relations have been relatively crisis-free for the past 10 years. During that period - despite the end of the cold war and the evaporation of Cuba's capacity to threaten American security - US policy has remained frozen, paralyzed by domestic political consideration and out of step with nearly every other country in the world.

Recent events have already forced the US to change the way it deals with Cuban refugees. The Clinton administration should take advantage of the current crisis and do what it could not do under normal circumstances - fundamentally reassess its posture toward Cuba and forge an approach that will contribute, over the long term, to the building of democracy and sustained economic improvement. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles 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@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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