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Why Still Treat Cuba as a Pariah?

Foreign policy: Post-Cold War Cuba poses no threat and needs our help out of the wilderness.

July 23, 1998|JAMES HILL | James Hill, editor of James Hill's Weekly (on the World Wide Web at http://www.jhillweekly.com) recently returned from Cuba, where he interviewed officials about the legacy of their revolution

President Clinton's visit to China, coming as it did when Washington's policies toward the world's most populous nation are the subject of so much domestic controversy, proves at least one thing: the administration's willingness to stand for something it believes in when it comes to foreign affairs.

So do the administration's tentative first steps toward restoring normal relations with Iran, a walk into a potential tar patch if there ever was one, although the rewards could be considerable.

Combine these with the administration's earlier efforts to restore relations with Vietnam and to defuse a North Korean nuclear weapons program and one sees a vigorous effort to mend fences with old foes. Yet one old foe, just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, remains mysteriously absent from this mix. Perhaps the time has come when it shouldn't be.

Almost a decade since the collapse of its Moscow patron, Cuba defiantly and bravely continues to go it alone, its revolution still pointed down the path of socialism. That is the reality at the top, at least. Filtering down through the various levels of Cuban society are a host of contradictions, many of which cry out for skillful diplomatic solutions, many more of which raise the specter of a human tragedy unfolding should the United States continue to watch from the sidelines.

During the periodo especial--the name Cubans ascribe to the post-Cold War era--the Caribbean island nation of 11 million has successfully adopted the U.S. dollar as its principal currency, built up its tourism industry to rake in the cash, invited foreign companies to enter into joint ventures and allowed Cubans to practice a degree of free enterprise.

A U.S. economic embargo, now in its fourth decade, makes the going rough, however. And it appears to be getting rougher. Despite the frenzied pace of new construction, despite the impressive amount of restoration under way in historic Old Havana, despite the appearance of European businessmen concluding deals over rum and Cohiba cigars in elegant and expensive cafes, Cuba today presents a very different face than it did just a year and a half ago, when optimism was guardedly high that the island could make it, embargo or not.

It is now a race against time. Cuba still suffers shortages of everything, especially the bare necessities. Electricity is hit and miss; gasoline is priced high, and precious. Doctors worry about the threat of epidemics and the lack of medicines to treat them. Nutrition levels are believed to be falling. And despite the fact that the dollar is king, few are getting into Cuban hands. Wages, even among the highly educated professional classes, rarely top more than the equivalent of $30 a month.

Many European Union countries, Spain in particular, seem to sense that these problems can be overcome and are making a rush to get into the Cuban market. But the question U.S. policymakers have to ask is: Can the transformation occur while the blockade is still in place? The Cuban answer, from high government officials to families dependent on stateside relatives to supply such everyday items as clothing and medicines, is a simple one: No. The needs are just too great and the costs of raising capital to fund infrastructure and modernize industry too high.

What is more perplexing to the Cubans is the Clinton administration's willingness to "engage" with China and Vietnam, still unreconstructed communist regimes, while ignoring Cuba's worsening social and physical deterioration as long as Fidel Castro remains in power.

Considering that the Pentagon has concluded that Cuba presents no military threat to the United States, it makes little sense to continue treating it as a pariah state and in fact invites unintended consequences that would serve no U.S. interests in the Caribbean basin or the hemisphere as a whole. Cuban officials insist that they only want a dialogue. Clinton, so prepared to take the heat for his China approach, needs to question the wisdom of policies grounded in the Cold War and engage Cuba as well. It might not bring about the fall of Castro, which is the present rationale. But it could assure his eventual successors that Washington would be with them as they carve their way out of the wilderness.

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