Castro's rusted ship of state is ripe for salvage

Forty years ago, on Jan. 1, 1959, Fidel Castro seized power in Cuba. Today, his ship of state is an old rust bucket in a storm of his making. The passengers are desperate, but Mr. Castro is still on the bridge, grimly steering his course. His aim is just to stay afloat and attract help. In this he has been successful.

The United States, meanwhile, has failed - try as it might - to get rid of him and his regime. In fact, US policy has given Castro a bogeyman, a Yankee menace which he uses to justify repression and to frighten his people into obedience. It has also affronted America's friends and allies with the Helms-Burton Act, punishing them for not fully going along.

Twenty-four US Senators, Democrats and Republicans, have written President Clinton, asking him to establish a national bipartisan commission to review US-Cuba policy in light of "significant changes in the world situation." They cite the Pentagon finding this year that Cuba is not a security risk to this country, the end in 1991 of billions of dollars in annual Soviet aid to Cuba, and "the historic visit of Pope John Paul II" to Cuba last January.

The senators make no specific proposals, but their purpose is clearly to support those who are working for transition to democracy in Cuba. It is not a quick process. The pope's visit enhanced Castro's prestige, and the pontiff openly criticized the US economic embargo. Prime Minister Jean Chretien of Canada soon followed him to Havana. King Juan Carlos of Spain, a revered figure in the Hispanic world, is coming next year. Caribbean and Central American countries have resumed diplomatic relations. The annual 21 nation Ibero-American summit will meet in Havana in 1999, as will the Conference of Latin American Bishops.

It might appear that Castro is the big winner, but the game is far from over. Pope John Paul came to Cuba not to confront the communist state but to demand that the church be allowed to exercise its normal functions in civil society: religious, moral, and humanitarian. Castro knows better than anyone how subversive this is, and he has stonewalled as much as possible. Parochial schools, shut down by the revolution, remain closed. The request for a printing press has been denied (though photocopiers donated by the German bishops produced 30,000 copies of the pope's homilies in Cuba for circulation). Claritas, the Roman Catholic social welfare agency, has expanded its work considerably, clothing and feeding the poor and homeless (who don't officially exist). It is forbidden, however, to operate orphanages or shelters.

The regime's police power is unchallenged, but people have less fear of a state that is economically and morally bankrupt.

This year's sugar harvest was the worst in decades, and sugar is Cuba's largest industry. Now the government is more dependent than ever on income from tourism. Remittances from abroad, some $800 million annually, mainly from the US, are vital for the economy. The US dollar is, quite legally, Cuba's only currency of value.

Food rations have been cut to malnutrition levels, and the average family can live only if somehow it obtains dollars. That "somehow" includes prostitution, in which the government is at least a silent partner. Sex tourism, "singles packages" for men, is thought to be about one-sixth of total tourism. The number of prostitutes, some pathetically young, at tourist hotels is conspicuous.

It is no wonder that people, even many of the young, turn to religion for meaningful content in bleak lives. Although 26,000 were allowed last year to legally emigrate to the US and this year's quota is roughly the same, boat people still try to escape.

American policy has borne only bitter fruit. It is time that the administration, if it is not completely crippled by partisan pressure on the president, joined with Congress to change it.

* Richard C. Hottelet, a longtime foreign correspondent for CBS, writes on world affairs.

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