Carter trip highlights the great US divide over Cuba

Bush is expected to lay out tougher trade and travel restrictions on the Castro regime.

Like the child who's figured out the benefits of keeping two parents at odds over him, Cuban President Fidel Castro must be relishing the moment.

A former American president and the current White House occupant are presenting two very different playbooks for dealing with Mr. Castro – whose communist regime, both American presidents agree, denies its citizens such human rights as freedom of expression and the right to organize political opposition.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who ends a five-day trip to Cuba today, favors change through engagement. The idea – that castigation hasn't worked, so let's try opening up more to the Cuban people – is backed by a growing slice of Congress, including a new bipartisan group advocating more trade and ending all restrictions on travel to Cuba.

On the other hand, President Bush – who, Monday, will lay out his vision for dealing with Cuba – insists only more punishment will make the Caribbean dictator bend. Mr. Bush is expected to tighten trade and travel restrictions, while also unveiling measures to give more information to the Cuban people. Then, he'll fly to Miami to celebrate Cuban independence day with the Fidel-abhoring exile community.

His stance is backed by some fiercely anti-Castro members of Congress, who hope to offset over the coming months the tide favoring more normal relations with Cuba by highlighting the island's human rights abuses.

Castro smiling

But through the debate, the one smiling is Castro. His fleeting return to prominence on the US stage solidifies his stature among his own people. And the controversy suggests solidification of the status quo in US-Cuba relations, which actually tightens Castro's lock on power by allowing him to use the US as his excuse for economic failures.

"In a way, Fidel must be laughing as he sees Carter saying one thing and Bush another," says Uva de Aragón, of the Cuba Research Center at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami. "In the short term, it's positive for Fidel that in America there's this disagreement."

Carter boldly publicized on Cuban TV grass-roots efforts to force political and economic change in the 43-year-old communist regime. He also stated his view that the US embargo on Cuba should end – the only one of his two themes the government-controlled press reported.

But the Bush administration quickly denied that the Carter visit might affect US policy. "President Carter ... spoke his mind with respect to our policy, which he would like to see change, but which is not going to change," Secretary of State Colin Powell said Wednesday.

It's that "status quo" approach that the Cuba Working Group – 20 Republican and 20 Democratic members of Congress – wants to change.

"The policy of isolating Cuba from the US for 43 years has failed, and failed miserably," says William Delahunt (D) of Massachusetts. Adding that it's time to forget old obsessions, Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona says, "There's been too much attention on Fidel Castro. It's Cuba's next generation where we should focus our attention."

The group proposes bringing US–Cuba policy in line with policy toward other communist regimes such as China, Vietnam, and even North Korea. It also wants to repeal the travel ban, allow "normal" exports of agricultural products and medicines, create academic exchanges between the two countries, and end the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which restricts other countries' investments in Cuba.

US farm exports to Cuba

The group's Republicans are largely from farm states that want to export more food to Cuba.

By visiting Little Havana Monday, Bush feeds Democratic criticism that his tough Cuba stance is politically calculated to keep Florida's Cuban-exile support.

But Ms. Aragón says polls show the Cuban-exile community "has changed tremendously" and generally favors much more open contact with Cuba.

But Florida Republicans argue that the track record of "engagement" with Cuba by other countries hasn't changed Cuba either.

"About 200 countries including some very powerful ones have been trying that idea and have proven that engaging in trade and commerce is not working either," says Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida, a member of the Congressional anti-Castro caucus.

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