America's Awkward 36-Year Struggle With a Dictator

WHEN the European Union wants to close a trade agreement with Cuba, the Clinton administration objects. When President Clinton eases up on travel restrictions to Cuba, he balances that by tightening the embargo. When Fidel Castro wants to attend an anniversary summit session of the United Nations, Sen. Bob Dole objects. The Clinton administration, saying it can't keep him out under the agreements with the UN, nevertheless promises to keep him confined to the New York area.

Castro has been a bone in the throat of presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton. Fear and loathing of Fidel as an extended arm of communism in our hemisphere have managed to plunge this country into a series of disasters.

Back in 1959, when Castro came to power in a revolution, he first talked of cooperation with the United States. He made a five-day visit to Washington, touring museums and monuments and having a two-and-a-half-hour private talk with Vice President Nixon. (President Eisenhower managed to be out of town on a golfing vacation.)

But, as we later learned, within weeks of Fidel's rise to power, the National Security Council made a secret decision that the Castro regime was dangerous and had to be eliminated. And by March 1960, planning was in progress for a CIA-sponsored invasion by Cuban exiles. This, while Castro was making his first visit to the United Nations, restricted, like Nikita Khrushchev, to Manhattan. And irritating his hosts by moving into the Theresa Hotel in Harlem in tribute, as he put it, to America's oppressed Negroes.

The invasion - the Bay of Pigs - happened in 1961 on the watch of the new President Kennedy. It turned into a humiliation for the US that had profound effects. It helped to stiffen Kennedy's resolve to get America involved in the Vietnam War. Imagine the cigar-smoking, Cuban dictator goading America into that quagmire.

There followed a series of assassination plots sponsored by the CIA, some of them in cooperation with the Mafia, which was anxious to get back its Havana gambling concessions. It may well be that Lee Harvey Oswald became the self-appointed avenger of Castro: That would make the Kennedy assassination a historic irony.

President Johnson, coming into office, discovered what he called our "Murder Inc." in the Caribbean. But the plots against Castro continued. Under President Nixon, the Watergate break-in was carried out by Cuban-American Bay-of-Pigs veterans and was ostensibly in search of evidence that Castro was financing Sen. George McGovern's campaign. President Reagan had the Castro menace on his mind when he organized hidden wars in El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which helped to plunge him into the Iran-contra scandal. The invasion of Grenada came after word that the Cubans were helping to extend an airport runway.

Castro, without Soviet support, is still treated by the American Congress and the American White House as a menace to be blockaded economically while all the world wonders. Think for a minute of what Castro has done to us in the past 36 years, or rather what we have done to ourselves out of paranoid overreaction to a two-bit dictator 90 miles off our coast.

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