US-Cuba policy potholes

One hundred and one years ago next week, the US ended its formal military occupation of the Cuban island, and the Republic of Cuba was born.

Two months ago next week, the Republic of Cuba arrested and shortly thereafter imprisoned most of the country's leading dissidents, charging them with taking aid and comfort - and tape recorders, and money, and Internet access - from the same US. In other words, they were convicted of trading with the enemy. The Cuban government was provoked and goaded by the current head of the US Interests Section, one James Cason, a most undiplomatic diplomat, who for months had stuck out his tongue at Fidel Castro and said, "Nyah, nyah, nyah."

As it happens, I was in Havana that week, and in mid-roundup I asked a senior Cuban foreign ministry official to explain the dissident arrests.

"Those aren't dissidents," he huffed. "Those are counter-revolutionaries." I was reminded of Captain Segura, the Batista-era security chief in Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana," who divided his countrymen into torturable and non-torturable classes.

The predictable response to these reprehensible actions has involved denunciations, posing, and attitudes copped. International personalities lined up on the issue, among them Pope John Paul and liberal intellectual Susan Sontag on one side criticizing the Castro regime, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú and entertainer Harry Belafonte on the other supporting the Castro regime. Internet sites were abuzz with electronic petitions. End-the-embargo groups and state agricultural trade missions reconsidered their outlook. (Tuesday, in what appeared to be a further expansion of hostility, the US ordered 14 Cuban diplomats expelled from the country for "harmful" activity.)

Yet the net effect of all the accusations and condemnations, the righteous indignation and the wrongful machinations, has been to completely smother any rational discussion of the actual changes and improvements the rebels had petitioned for in their country in the first place.Certainly if the pro-Castro ideologues value dissidence in their own countries, they must respect it in other lands as well. But this nicety has been pretty much suffocated during the recent battle for the political high ground. This became evident when I asked an American friend who identifies himself as a Cuba solidarity soldier where he'd draw the line on supporting the regime."If there were," he said slowly, "a Tiananmen Square in Havana."

Another event that same week: As I rode by the busy intersection of Zanja and Belascoaín, a pothole the size of a small car was actually being repaired. The unmistakable pungent smell, the machinery, the workmen - why, it was a beautiful site, one that likely hadn't occurred since Captain Segura's day, and a small crowd gathered to observe this extraordinary activity. If an inner-city pothole like that were to be repaired in the States, you'd think a municipal election was pending.

None of what happened that week has elicited a helpful response from the Bush administration. Instead, licenses authorizing legitimate US groups organizing visits to Cuba will be sharply curtailed. We have a most unusual spectacle in which the Cuban government has warned its people not to mix with American officials, and the US government has told Americans not to mix with Cuban people. In short, each government is trying its hardest to be more unfriendly than the other.

Is there anything right with this picture? No, but here are some pre-emptive strikes to avert still worse pictures:

• Congress should drop the 42-year-old embargo. Its goal, to help Cubans by sabotaging their economy, is as perilous as that pothole was, and not nearly as reparable. I've never heard of a Cuban whose life is better because of the embargo.

• Once the economic and travel restrictions of the embargo are lifted, a resolution of the sticky matter of compensation for personal property seized 40 years ago should be negotiated.

• Adjust the Cuban Adjustment Act out of existence. That's the immigration law that gives Cubans who arrive here illegally preference over immigrants from every other country in the world. This would make immigration more orderly between the two countries and more equal with all other countries. These measures may - or may not - change Cuba's odious treatment of its dissidents, but they'd certainly clear the air of the stench wafting southward.

Havanans driving by Zanja and Belascoaín were so accustomed to the enormous gap in the street they thought nothing of it until it was repaired. Six months from now, will Americans be able to say the same about US Cuba policy?

Tom Miller is the author of 'Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro's Cuba.'

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