Closing Out the Castro Era

Sanctions on Cuba are outdated; new set of US incentives is needed

PRESIDENT Clinton would be wise to listen to his advisers who have called for an easing of relations with Cuba. By taking pragmatic steps leading to talks with the Castro government, the president could take credit for closing the final chapter on the cold war.

United States policy toward Cuba is as much an anachronism as is the failed attempt of Fidel Castro Ruz to create a ''workers' paradise.'' The Clinton administration's response to last summer's mini-crisis of Cuban emigrants was counterproductive to the US goal of fostering a peaceful transition to a free-market democracy in Cuba. Tightening the economic embargo and actively collaborating with Cuba to halt refugees from one of the last bastions of communism lends credence to President Castro's claims that the US is the root of Cuba's problems.

Thirty years would seem long enough to test whether the embargo has achieved its objective. Obviously it has not. Castro maintains an iron grip on Cuba despite the demise of his Soviet godfathers and the increasing economic deprivation afflicting the Cuban people. The Clinton administration fails to realize that the economic, political, and cultural isolation of Cuba actually bolsters Castro and denies the US the means by which it has positively influenced other former ''pariah'' countries such as South Africa, Chile, and Vietnam.

US business -- which has been a force for progress elsewhere -- is losing out on substantial opportunities in Cuba. Over the past two years, Spanish, Mexican, Canadian, British, and Israeli firms have invested more than half a billion dollars in Cuba, 90 percent of which has gone into the tourism industry. Studies conducted by Johns Hopkins University and others estimate that between $15 billion and $30 billion in trade has been lost to US businesses due to the embargo.

President Clinton failed to realize that the Cuban government's emphasis on linking last year's immigration talks with broader bilateral issues demonstrated Castro's desperation and therefore would have allowed the US to deal from a position of strength in moving to help the Cuban people and claim a victory for democracy. Placing restrictions on the talks lost us a significant diplomatic opportunity and failed to solve the issue of Cuban immigration, as demonstrated by the thousands of people still held in camps at Guantanamo at a cost to the US taxpayer of $20 million per month. The combination of economic and political pressures confronting the Castro government has made it ''ready to deal.''

AUNILATERAL and immediate lifting of the US embargo would be wrong. However, a gradual dismantling would test Cuba's sincerity and willingness to reform. Negotiations for normalized US-Cuban trade relation should be on a quid-pro-quo basis, offering incentives in return for allowing its people political and economic freedoms and settling property claims of US citizens.

Our policy goals -- democracy and economic freedom -- should continue as the cornerstones of our Cuba strategy. Although most of our Latin and Caribbean neighbors have normal diplomatic and commercial relations with the Castro regime, they are also eager to bring Cuba into the fold of Western Hemisphere free-market democracies. Our leadership position in the Organization of American States (OAS) offers a chance to work with hemispheric partners to bring this about.

A timetable should be devised linking Cuban progress toward these objectives with US concessions. A framework would be composed of long-term and short-term actions, leading to a full economic and diplomatic relationship between the US and Cuba.

The salient long-term action would be an agreement by the Castro government to hold free elections by early 1998 to coincide with the presidential elections mandated by the Cuban constitution. The elections would be organized and monitored by the OAS. Upon certification that the elections were free and fair, the US would end the last vestiges of the economic embargo and move to restore full relations.

Short-term actions would include monitoring by a special OAS unit that would issue reports at six-month intervals on political reforms including unrestricted formation of political parties and organizations, their access to the state-owned media, the growth of a free press, and other institutions and processes that form a universally accepted concept of pluralism and human rights. The OAS could also provide educational and economic assistance. Parallel negotiations would be held between the US and Cuba to settle property claims, frozen bank accounts, and immigration issues. If the Western Hemisphere democracies unite to present an unequivocal agenda for change to the Cuban people, Castro's time-worn ploy of blaming Cuba's many problems on los Yanquis will quickly be undermined.

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