U.S. Cuba policy plays into Castro's hands

Posted: May 15, 2002 12:00 AM
While Jimmy Carter tours Cuba on the strong arm of the world's longest-ruling tyrant, U.S. President George W. Bush is readying a speech to announce even tougher sanctions against Cuba. For Fidel Castro, it doesn't get any better than this. On the one hand, Carter provides Castro an opportunity to seem magnanimous, the elder statesman in a pinstriped suit, charming, hospitable and cooperative: Dissidents? You want dissidents? Carter may speak to any he'd like, says the dictator. Biological weapons, who me? Carter may tour any biotech facility his little peanut-lovin' heart desires, Castro asserts. On the other hand, Bush plays politics with Florida's Cuban-American vote, so vital to brother Jeb Bush's re-election as governor next November, and promises to make things even tougher for the communist dictator. The trade embargo will remain in effect, against much wisdom to the contrary, and travel between the two countries will become even stricter, according to reports about a speech Bush will give next week. Meanwhile, the question for Carter's visit is, which dissidents? The ones permitted to live freely, at least for the moment, or the ones in prison? As for touring facilities, one wouldn't expect to find biological weapons labeled on shelves like alphabetized spices. Sadly for the Cuban people, neither Carter's visit nor Bush's tough stance advances the needs of the people all purport to care about. Diplomatically disparate - one a benevolent gesture, the other a threat -both work in ironic tandem to accommodate Castro's strategy of oppression and self-aggrandizement. Carter's visit is nothing but a preen-op for Castro, master manipulator and public-relations magician. The former U.S. president will see and learn nothing he isn't intended to see and learn. I've been to Cuba on the Cuban government's peso tour and learned what I was meant to learn: Viva la revolucion. Repeat. Viva la revolucion. Repeat. When one member of our journalists' group bluntly asked National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon how Cuba treats its dissidents, Alarcon shifted in his seat, permitting us a rare - and I might add provocative - peek at his navel and chuckled, "Well, of course, sometimes we put them in prison." Think Carter will get to chat with a few of those? Meanwhile, the embargo - Bush's defense of which serves a family voting bloc and little else - hurts the Cuban people while helping Castro. It hurts American business, too, but one can argue favorably for lifting the embargo without caring whether America's purses benefit. Owing in part to the embargo, the Cuban people suffer from a lack of basic goods, the sort of stuff we routinely toss in the trash - food, toiletries, pencils, paper - or take for granted. Toilet seats are scarcer than Eskimos for the non-tourist class. Castro benefits because he's permitted a lifelong, by now beloved, scapegoat. When his people complain they don't have enough to eat, Castro blames America. Not enough medicine? America's fault. Bad teeth, shabby shelters, cramped living quarters? America's embargo, which Cuban officials stubbornly call "the blockade." Bush argues typically, but incorrectly, that lifting the embargo would help Castro. Lifting the embargo and permitting freer travel between the two countries would accomplish exactly the opposite. Freedom, after all, is irresistible and contagious, as Cubans are learning from the thousands of foreigners who visit their island each year. It does not escape their notice that only tourists are permitted entry into the fancy hotels in Old Havana and along Cuba's beaches. Those who work in the tourist industry go home at day's end with tales of lavish food spreads and high-roller lifestyles of the relatively rich, all mere dreams to the rice-and-beans families who crowd like livestock into decaying, ventless buildings. Officially, Cuba would welcome a lifting of the American embargo, but even a casual visit to the island confirms speculation that the embargo is Castro's favorite thing. It provides an excuse for his failed policies while justifying his lifelong contempt for the United States. Indeed, Castro and the U.S. embargo are like a bitterly married couple, mutually dependent on their dysfunction for survival. Of this much we can be certain: Whatever transpires from Carter's visit will be what Castro wants rather than what Carter achieves or Bush forswears. In this little triumvirate, there's only one dictator.