Why Make Cuba So Special?

THERE is a perverse rule of American foreign policy: The attention a country receives varies inversely with its size and importance. Consider Cuba.

How else can we explain the United States government's continuing preoccupation with the country? This fixation has endured through the administration of every president from Eisenhower to Clinton. Only President Carter had a halfway enlightened policy. Reaching an agreement with the Castro regime to establish ''interest sections'' in Washington and Havana, Mr. Carter took a step toward restoring the diplomatic relations broken under Eisenhower. But his administration, scared off by the dispatch of Cuban troops to Angola, never followed through.

During the cold war, there was reason for the US to be concerned, but not hysterical, about the Soviet-Cuban alliance. The only time Cuba was a real threat to the US -- when the Soviets installed nuclear missiles there in 1962 -- the Kennedy administration acted swiftly to have them removed.

The late Sen. William Fulbright once described Cuba as ''a thorn in the flesh, but not a dagger in the heart.'' It is now closer to the mark to say of Cuba that it is a big itch that demands persistent American scratching; in fact, we'd rather scratch than cure the itch.

We spend a great deal of money broadcasting propaganda into the island. We make it hard for people to travel there, a peculiar policy when otherwise we trumpet freedom to travel as fundamental. The Navy has endured great expense to hang onto its base at Guantanamo Bay simply to prove that the Cubans couldn't force it to leave. A bill with potent congressional sponsorship seeks to extend the US economic boycott to foreign-owned subsidiaries (and their employees) of American companies. This has already outraged Canada and most of Europe.

All of this is supposed to democratize Cuba. But our main national interest in Cuba is that over time something approaching normal relations be reestablished.

It is unbecoming for the US to stay in such a state of high dudgeon over a poor little country like Cuba. There is a better alternative: Simply stop doing what we are doing and let nature take its course. We do not need to embrace Fidel Castro Ruz. Rescind the travel and currency restrictions. Lift the embargo. Require Cubans to meet the same immigration standards as Dominicans or Mexicans; no more, no less. See what happens. If the Cubans want to exchange ambassadors, fine. If they want to shut us out, it will be clear that it is they, not we, who want a closed society.

These changes would no doubt bring an outflow of cash from Cubans in the US to relatives in Cuba, but only tens, not hundreds, of millions of dollars -- hardly significant. There would not be much growth in trade; Cuba has no money to buy anything. No American in his right mind would invest there. There would be some increase in travel, but most Americans would probably still prefer Mexico, Jamaica, or Puerto Rico.

The greatest advantage of this suggested new policy is that it would project an American image of mature world leader instead of frustrated neighborhood bully. It would also deprive Castro of his favorite whipping boy.

For a century we have tolerated, even embraced, equally or more obnoxious dictators in the Caribbean and Central America. The US has been in serious negotiations with the brutally repressive North Korea. We overlook the egregious Chinese human rights offenses. We are about to open an embassy in Hanoi 20 years after giving up on the Vietnam War, which cost more than 50,000 American lives. What makes Castro so special?

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