Clinton Cuba shift is hardly enough

New year's day marked the 40th anniversary of the triumph of the Castro revolution in Cuba. Fidel Castro is by far the world's senior dictator.

The United States has a long history of accommodating itself to equally or more brutal Latin American dictators. One of the worst was Leonidas Trujillo of the Dominican Republic. FDR said of Trujillo, "He's an SOB, but he's our SOB." That explains why we have had such trouble accepting Mr. Castro. He is not, and never has been, nor ever will be, ours.

Since the days of the Monroe Doctrine, the US has had a hegemonic relationship with Latin America; but with pre-Castro Cuba it was something more. From the beginning of Cuban independence following the Spanish-American War, the US unilaterally asserted the right to intervene in Cuba and did so. American ambassadors acted as pro-consuls. Castro stopped that.

It did not take long for Castro in power to confirm the State Department's worst fears, and the American government shortly began to scheme for his overthrow. To no avail. Castro has survived the Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis (the only time he was a genuine threat to the US), countless dirty tricks hatched by the CIA, American economic embargoes, and the loss of $3 billion or $4 billion dollars a year in Soviet aid.

With the exception of Carter who made a modest, short-lived effort at rapprochement, every American president from Eisenhower to Clinton has followed the same policy of implacable opposition.

The policy has been motivated less by sober assessment of the US national interest than by Castro's destruction of US influence in Cuba.

In some respects, the Castro revolution was as much against the US position in Cuba as it was against the then Cuban government. Especially in its early days, the revolution had a strong puritanical streak. It ended gambling and open, big-scale prostitution, both of which were supported by American tourists and returned large profits to the American mafia. When the CIA was looking for a hit man to knock off Castro, the mafia was more than happy to supply one.

American interests in pre-Castro Cuba controlled more than vice; through legitimate investments, they also controlled a good deal of the Cuban economy. Castro ended this by expropriating American investments. This has given rise to large claims of American citizens against the Cuban government, but Cuba is hardly the first country to incur such claims.

The US has steadily raised the bar of what Cuba must do to get back in US good graces. When Cuba meets one standard, the US demands another. For years, we said Cuba had to get rid of Soviet influence. That was accomplished, though not by anything Cuba did, through the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

No longer having this to complain about, the US said Cuba had to democratize its politics, increase its respect for human rights, and liberalize its economy. Large steps toward the last goal have been taken under pressure of the cessation of Soviet aid. Desperate for foreign exchange, the Castro government is catering to Canadian and European tourists and is tolerating a resurgence of open prostitution.

The pope's visit a year ago brought some improvement in freedom of religion, and it was OK this year to celebrate Christmas. But the political system continues to be authoritarian. We tolerate this in China, but we demand more from Cuba.

A potent influence on American policy has been the large, vociferous, anti-Castro exile community in the US, concentrated in Miami with substantial numbers also in New Jersey. Many of these exiles dream of a return to the status quo ante in a post-Castro Cuba. This is unrealistic fantasy; some Castro policies can be reversed, but the omelette he made is never going to be unscrambled.

The American obsession with Castro has long since become counterproductive. It is one thing to prohibit American trade with Cuba, foolish though this may be. It is something else to try to impose such a policy on third countries through secondary boycotts, even extending to excluding from the US some foreign businessmen who trade with Cuba.

The Clinton administration this week extinguished a flicker of good sense which had been offered by Sen. John W. Warner, (R) of Virginia, for a bipartisan national commission to review the matter.

Senator Warner had the support of 23 senators from both parties and of three former secretaries of state, but not, alas, the current one.

In turning down Warner's idea, the administration offers instead a bundle of palliatives which will serve only to highlight the contradictions in its policy.

Pat M. Holt, is a Washington writer on foreign affairs. He is the author of 'Secret Intelligence and Public Policy' (Congressional Quarterly Press, 1995).

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