Rethinking Cuba

New Year's Day marked the 41st anniversary of the triumphant entry into Havana of the revolutionary forces of Fidel Castro. This makes Castro the world's longest-ruling dictator. He has outlasted eight United States presidents, beginning with Dwight Eisenhower. Another year will put him past the ninth, Bill Clinton.

This feat is especially remarkable because it was achieved despite the efforts of all those presidents - except Jimmy Carter - to bring him down by fair means or foul. That speaks poorly for the influence of the US, a presumed superpower, and for the potency of the CIA's dirty tricks.

To a person from outer space, it would suggest that the Cuban people generally support Castro and that the US should find another way to deal with him. Alone among his predecessors and successors, President Carter did this. The US and Cuba established diplomatic interests sections in each other's capitals, a step short of reopening full diplomatic relations. These sections are still doing the humdrum work of embassies, but they have not evolved as was hoped and intended.

Almost from the beginning, the trouble with Cuban policy has been that it is directed toward Castro's removal instead of toward working out a framework for reasonable relations with Cuba. The US has never recognized Cuba's gains under Castro in health (an infant death rate comparable to that in the US) and education (a literacy rate of more than 95 percent).

The US has also raised its standards for relaxing hostility. First, it required the end of Soviet influence. That condition was met when the Soviet Union self-destructed, taking with it the subsidy ($3 billion to $4 billion a year) that had been supporting the Cuban economy. The US could have seized this opportunity to substitute its influence for the Soviets', but it chose to use it as a tool for tightening the screws on Cuba. The new standard became democracy and human rights, something that is not expected of assorted other governments, notably China.

There are three impediments to a rational Cuban policy. One is a group of noisy, fanatical Cuban exiles concentrated in Miami. It is one of the ironies of our time that a presumed superpower should allow its foreign policy to be held hostage by such a group. Another impediment is Congress, which has consistently taken a hard line on Cuba, including a trade embargo that has been in effect since early in the Castro period. Finally, President Clinton himself is an impediment. Throughout his administration, he has been responsive to the din coming from Miami and to the political clout of Cuban-American voters in Florida.

There are, at last, some signs of possible change. Recent polls, ordinarily an influence in the Clinton White House, show general support for rapprochement. The loss of Soviet aid led Castro to open the country to foreign investment, which is now coming from Europe, Canada, and Japan. While those investors are making money, US firms - to their chagrin - are not allowed by their own government to compete. Neither does the farm bloc like being shut out of the Cuban market for foodstuffs, a market the American Farm Bureau Federation estimates at $600 million a year. Business and agriculture together might be inspired to raise a countervailing clamor to the Miami exiles.

Foreign investment is exposing Cubans, most of whom are too young to remember life before Castro, to the benefits that flow from free markets. The economic system in Cuba will continue changing, even if the political system is not - yet.

These events might possibly open minds in the White House and Congress. Meanwhile, there things the president could do without Congress. He could ease the embargo with respect to food and medicine, relax travel restrictions, and close TV Marti, a Florida-based propaganda operation that is an ineffective irritant and is not seen or heard in Cuba anyway.

Perhaps most importantly, he could let Cubans know that the US accepts the end of the cold war and is ready to talk about a new US-Cuba relationship.

*Pat M. Holt is a Washington writer on foreign affairs. He is co-author of the forthcoming 'National Insecurity: U.S. Intelligence After the Cold War' (Temple University Press).

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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