The U.S. House just gave Fidel Castro a reason to live. With its vote Wednesday to lift restrictions on American citizens traveling to Cuba, one can safely reckon that El Jefe is no longer faint with Caribbean heat and island ennui.
There's nothing like hate to get a tired dictator back on his feet.
The vote came as an amendment to the 2002 spending bill for the Treasury Department, White House and other agencies. On its own, the amendment passed 240-186; the whole bill passed on a 334-94 vote and now goes to the Senate.
This historic move comes just five years after Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act, which tightened the 40-year-old U.S. embargo on Cuba. Among other things, the act has restricted the movement of Cuban diplomats in the United States, closed off charter air routes to and from Cuba, and imposed penalties (in theory) on other nations trading with Cuba.
Publicly, Castro has railed the act and long has blamed the U.S. embargo, which Cubans still refer to as the "blockade," for his country's travails. The failures of his communist regime aren't the fault of bad policies, but of the giant oppressor to the north. Privately, and for all the same reasons, many suspect that Castro secretly adores the embargo.
As students of Cuba know, Castro's hatred of the United States goes back to his childhood when Americans - and more important, American corporations - effectively owned the island. His revolution against U.S.-friendly Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista was but the first step in what he envisioned as a future war against the United States. His David vs. Goliath fantasy is documented in the Museo de la Revolucion in Havana.
On the third floor, you'll find a note from Castro to his colleague, Celia Sanchez - handwritten while Castro was still waging war against Batista and long before the embargo - in which he details his inflated, if prophetic, ambition:
"When this war (against Batista) is over, a much wider and bigger war will begin for me: the war that I am going to launch against them (the United States). I am saying to myself that is my true destiny."
The embargo only added fuel to Castro's fire and provided a source of nourishment for his insatiable hatred. All of which raises the question: Does Castro really want the embargo or travel restrictions lifted? Some experts speculate that Castro, in fact, does whatever's necessary to ensure that the embargo stays in place.
Indeed, the Helms-Burton Act was passed right after Cuban MIG fighters shot down two U.S. civilian planes in February 1996. Aboard the planes, which had flown many times into Cuban airspace, were four Cuban-Americans who were members of Brothers to the Rescue, a group of Miami-based exiles.
Why did Castro suddenly decide to shoot down these familiar, unarmed planes? Some believe that it was a deliberate attempt to force then-President Clinton to get tough just as he was considering relaxing restrictions. Clinton had no choice but to sign the act if he wanted to win Florida's Cuban vote that year.
For the past several years, notwithstanding the strengthened embargo, Americans have been traveling to Cuba in increasing numbers. Last year 87,000 Americans traveled legally as part of some 500 fact-finding or educational groups, according to Cuban officials. At least 700 Americans companies already have registered 3,000 trademarks in Cuba, where foreign investment law protects anonymity.
Cuba, in other words, welcomes doting Americans in limited numbers, just as Castro welcomes American dollars by whatever means. But the thought of travel restrictions being lifted and a sudden surge of ugly Americans on Cuban soil might be more than Castro can stomach.
Those supporting the bill argue, probably correctly, that allowing travel between the United States and Cuba is the likeliest path to fostering democratic values and that the embargo has been ineffective in damaging Castro. Others think that lifting restrictions should be contingent on Cuba's releasing political prisoners and returning fugitive U.S. citizens.
Forget it. If we've learned anything in four decades, it's that Castro doesn't cut deals. El Fidel gets what El Fidel wants, and there's really nothing he wants less than a million American tourists polluting his marvelously decaying paradise. Watch those MIGs.