THIRTY-FIVE years have passed since the United States imposed its embargo on Cuba. Five years have gone by since the Soviet Union halted its multibillion-dollar subsidies to Cuba. What's left of the Cuban economy is in shambles, along with most of the buildings, streets, and vehicles in Havana. Per-capita income has dropped more than 50 percent since 1990, and imports have plummeted by nearly 80 percent. This year's sugar harvest was the worst in half a century. Cuba's impressive social advances in such areas as education and health have eroded, while disparities are growing in income and wealth.
Yet there is nothing to suggest that Fidel Castro Ruz's authority has diminished at all. Nor is there any indication that he is prepared to reduce his grip on power or allow significant political change. Although no one can predict the future, it is a pretty safe bet that Mr. Castro - who is still shy of 70 and, from all reports, in good health - will hold on to power for as long as he is physically and mentally able to.
Short of a military invasion or assassination - both of which are inconceivable - there is nothing that the US can do either to depose the Cuban leader or to force him to liberalize Cuban politics. Recall the failure of US economic and diplomatic sanctions to even come close to unseating other dictators such as Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras in Haiti, Manuel Noriega in Panama, or Saddam Hussein in Iraq. None of them was more firmly entrenched than Castro is today or enjoyed greater popular support and international acceptance. Indeed, US sanctions may actually be fortifying Castro's hold on power by providing him with a ready excuse for the country's economic failings.
While continuing to oppose the Castro regime, a more constructive US policy would focus on the longer-term question of how to set the stage for Cuba's eventual transition to a democratic government and a market-based economy. The challenges will be to keep the transition peaceful, move quickly to install democratic practices, and prepare for integration into the world economy. Not only would this strategy more realistically take account of circumstances in Cuba and the limitations of US power, it would also better serve the national interests of the American and Cuban peoples.
NO one will benefit from violent change in Cuba. Violence will not help to establish a stable basis either for democratic progress or economic recovery. It will almost certainly propel a new wave of immigration to the US and may create pressures for US armed intervention.
A US policy directed toward a peaceful future Cuban transition would include three key elements:
* First, the US should contribute to the capacity of individuals and institutions in Cuba to act independently of the state. The best way to do that is to encourage (rather than impede) a wide range of open international exchanges with Cuba. The freest possible flow of people, ideas, and information should be the objective. There should also be an end to restrictions on remittances, which help to make people and families financially independent of the government.
* Second, building on the success of negotiations on migration, Washington should pursue agreements on control of narco-trafficking and environmental protection in the Caribbean. These have to be dealt with eventually by the two governments.
* Third, the US should lift its virtual veto on communication between the Cuban government and international financial institutions, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Inter-American Development Bank. These institutions will play central roles in Cuba's transition, as they have elsewhere. The better they know Cuba and the greater experience Cuba has in dealing with them, the easier the economic transition will be.
The US, in short, should stop trying to do what it cannot do - overthrow Fidel Castro. Instead, it should start doing what it can do - help to establish the basis for a quick and peaceful transition to democratic rule once the inevitable change in regimes occurs.