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A Trade Embargo That Has Long Outlived Its Purpose : Cuba: It's near impossible to imagine Havana as a normal trading partner, yet consider what a post-ban friendship might look like.

April 11, 1993|Tom Miller | Tom Miller is the author of "Trading with the Enemy: A Yankee Travels through Castro's Cuba" (Atheneum)

WASHINGTON — America's unfortunate policy toward Cuba has become a mesh of metaphors: Don't rock a sinking ship. The new man slated for the State De partment's Inter-American Affairs desk, Alexander Watson, could change that--but it's unlikely.

With the notable exception of a few years under Jimmy Carter, the U.S. attitude toward Cuba for more than 34 years has been to sit and wait. Yet with most Cubans eager for enormous and immediate change at home and their government scrambling for capital abroad, nothing could be more opportune than to bring the U.S. blockade to a merciful close.

The embargo, which provides its domestic backers great leverage in Congress, gives America the least leverage abroad. If we were to take our attitude toward Cuba out of internal politics and put it into foreign policy, the question of ending the embargo would shift from "if and why" to "how and when."

Almost two generations of Americans have grown up warily thinking of Cuba as an enemy, or at least as an unfriendly neighbor. It's become close to impossible to imagine Cuba as a normal trading partner, yet it's not too early to begin considering what each country could look forward to in a post-embargo friendship.

A lot of the warmth is already in place. In a country whose welfare is unraveling with heartbreaking speed, you can still find young lovers, family picnickers and black marketeers on the Malecon; early morning fishermen, prostitutes, footloose teen-agers, and elderly couples congregate there as well. During eight months in Cuba, not once in my regular walks along the Malecon did I encounter any animosity for my nationality. Offers to play chess and dominoes, yes; curiosity, solicitations and propositions, of course.

Mainly, people wanted to talk. Residents of both countries, we agreed, should distinguish between policies and people. Cubans possess far more knowledge about U.S. culture and politics than we do about theirs. They are sophisticated about our music, films and often our literature; one fellow had just finished "Ironweed" and recommended it to me. They don't need Hooked on Phonics.

Cuba lost its major trading partner for the second time in 30 years with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc. How much it will privatize--and to what extent a mixed economy would permit foreign ownership--will determine whether an infusion of cash and equipment from the United States would be welcomed.

While no one wants a repeat of U.S. capital run amok in Cuba, certainly the infrastructure--most critically, housing, communications and transportation--needs outside help for a clean sweep. For all the breast beating about "zero option" and going it alone, the country sure could use rewiring, replumbing and a paint job. With new equipment in the sugar mills and tobacco factories, we would have yet another source for sweets, rum and aromatic cigars. ("Tobacco is the voluntary offering of nature," philosophized Cuban writer Fernando Ortiz in 1940, "liberal, not to say revolutionary," while "sugar is made by man and power" and is "conservative, if not reactionary.")

Closer ties legitimize the issue of human rights. Instead of its manipulation by those out to sabotage the country's economy, it can be addressed as the valid cause it deserves to be. Likewise, with formal links, U.S. accusations of high-level Cuban drug complicity could more easily be dealt with.

Foreign investors are looking at off-shore oil leases. The Japanese are said to have already staked a position in Cuba's mining industry. A tropical island full of fruit to pluck would surely interest citrus companies. Certainly, Cuba has lessons for us in public health and even pharmaceutical research, a field that has yielded medications routinely exported to other Latin American countries. As it stands now, however, the country's medical strengths have weakened. "My father can have open-heart surgery performed in clean hospitals by well-trained doctors with modern equipment," a Cuban woman told me caustically, "but you can't find an aspirin on the streets of Havana."

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