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Clinton Should Board Air Force One to Cuba

Foreign policy: A state visit would remove Fidel Castro's excuse for stifling dissent.

May 30, 2000|JIM McGOVERN | Jim McGovern is a Democratic U.S. congressman from Massachusetts

Much of the controversy, anger and distrust we have witnessed over the past five months of the Elian Gonzalez case could have been prevented with better understanding and communication between Americans and Cubans. That is why I urge President Clinton to visit Cuba before he leaves office.

The president should fly on Air Force One into Jose Marti Airport in Havana and declare to the Cuban people that the Cold War is finally over. He should announce that he will use his executive power to normalize diplomatic relations, lift the travel restrictions imposed on U.S. citizens who want to travel to Cuba and waive as much of the outdated economic embargo as current law allows.

The president could speak to students at universities from Havana to Santiago de Cuba about the importance of human rights, free speech, free press and free assembly. He could meet with Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, and encourage the expanding role of the Catholic Church in Cuban society. He could meet with representatives of American educational, cultural and nonprofit organizations currently operating on the island. He could pursue opportunities for American businesses that want access to Cuban markets. He could nurture the fledgling dialogue that exists between our nations in the critical areas of drug trafficking, immigration and counter-terrorism. He could even talk baseball with Cuba's passionate and knowledgeable fans.

And he could meet with the dissident community working to change the Cuban government from within. Those dissidents would no doubt tell the president, as they told me when I visited there recently, that American isolation does nothing to promote a more open Cuba. For example, the United States forbids the export of items, such as fax machines and Internet technology, that would directly and powerfully aid those Cubans pressing for democratization. We should encourage the free flow of ideas, not contribute to its suppression.

If the president were to visit, he would find a Cuba that is much more complex than the stale Cold War rhetoric would have you believe. He would find that many Cubans, including some in the current government, are searching for ways to change their country without sacrificing the gains they have made in education, infant mortality and health care.

The Cuban government, for its part, should extend to President Clinton the same courtesies given to Pope John Paul II during his historic 1998 trip to the island: the ability to travel wherever he wants, say whatever he wants and have his public speeches carried live and censorship-free on Cuban TV and radio.

I'm certain the prospect of such bold, unconventional presidential travel would upset the most fervent supporters of current U.S. policy toward Cuba. Ironically, it would also cause discomfort for Fidel Castro. For 40 years he has used our embargo as a convenient excuse for every political and economic shortcoming of the Cuban revolution. Castro's argument has been that as long as Cuba is "under siege" from the United States, he is justified in stifling dissent.

By visiting Cuba and opening relations between our two countries, President Clinton could make that excuse disappear forever. He could break down the walls of ignorance and fear that exist between us. And he could establish the framework for a more sensible relationship between the United States and our island neighbor.

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