Calling Castro's bluff

IF FIDEL CASTRO is serious about developing a better relationship with the United States and getting the US embargo on trade with his country lifted, there are two things he can do to move this along.

First, he could hold a national referendum calling for the institution of civil rights and an amnesty for political prisoners in Cuba. On the eve of former President Jimmy Carter's visit to Cuba last week, some 20,000 Cubans had signed a petition calling for this referendum, but even after the secret police had their way with it and some of the signatories, 11,000 names remained on the documents presented to the National Assembly.

Second, Castro could permit serious international inspection of Cuban laboratories capable of offensive biological warfare research and development. This could clarify the debate as to whether these laboratories are being used for sinister, as well as humanitarian, purposes.

Cuba denies development for lethal purposes, but Cuban defectors and Russian and American scientists and politicians assert at least the capability, if not the actual production. The cursory laboratory visit afforded Mr. Carter and his nonexpert team, and a general promise of openness, is no substitute for examination by qualified experts.

These two actions, if genuinely implemented, would put considerable momentum into a domestic US campaign to end the trade embargo. This campaign is going nowhere in an election year, when most Americans, and especially the Cuban-American population of Florida, remain leery of Castro, and when the Bush administration is trumping President Carter's visit to Cuba with tough talk about keeping the pressure on Castro.

The most positive aspect of Carter's visit was the fillip it gave to the dissidents in Cuba waging a courageous battle for human rights. Castro wanted two things from the Carter visit: the international image boost of consorting with a former US president and Carter's support for an end to the trade embargo.

The concession Castro was obliged to make in return was to permit Carter to make his uncensored speech, in Spanish, over Cuban TV. In that speech Carter called on Castro to allow elections, ripped the regime for denying basic freedoms, and informed many Cubans for the first time of the request by dissidents for a national referendum on human rights. President Bush has consistently called for similar reforms and did again Monday, although he has not had the platform afforded Carter.

On Day 1 after the speech, the Cuban media coverage was cautious and limited, focusing on Carter's call to the Bush administration to lift the trade embargo and ease travel restrictions.

But on Day 2, the 400,000-circulation party newspaper, Granma, which circulates nationally, carried a full report of Carter's remarks on human rights, albeit with critical comments from Castro's cronies.

All this has given some heart to those who seek a free Cuba, but nobody in Cuba or the US should hold his or her breath. As one former confidante of Castro, now a US citizen, told me: "Castro knows that if he starts making concessions, his rule is ending."

If Carter's remarks to Cubans on freedom were a positive, his call upon his own country for abandonment of the trade embargo without concessions from Cuba was not.

The ending of the embargo is inevitable. The tide of history in Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America is clear. Though recalcitrant nations like China and North Korea and Iraq linger in the darkness of dictatorship, democracy is on a roll.

Cuba is an anchronism, condemned by its own Latin neighbors only last month in the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. One day, Cuba will be free and the trade embargo will melt away. So the question is not whether it will end, but when and how.

The embargo is an instrument of leverage in the US campaign to bring about reform in Cuba. The evidence of its importance is the desperation with which Castro seeks its end in order to rescue his economy from its mismanaged socialist torpor. It is a bargaining chip that should be nudged closer to the table as Castro effects changes for the betterment of his people.

The Bush administration and Jimmy Carter are at one in their desire for freedom in Cuba and normalization of relations with the US. They are deeply divided on how to get it. Carter favors a US end to the trade and travel restrictions without a quid pro quo from Cuba. Bush believes relaxation of American pressure must come only as Castro, or a successive regime, takes verifiable and credible steps toward democracy.

• John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor and editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News.

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