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U.S. Cuba Policy: A 50-Year Failure?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

After a 134-day hunger strike, Guillermo Farinas' waist is so small that a dog collar could fit around it. This living skeleton (who has survived this long only because he has taken nutrients intravenously) now has a victory: The Cuban government has announced the planned release of 52 political prisoners. That Raul Castro appears to have buckled to international pressure is, of course, good news -- though it comes too late for Orlando Zapata.

Zapata was a plumber and bricklayer who committed what the Castro brothers consider a treasonous act -- he joined a political group that believes in freedom, the Alternative Republic Movement. After his 2002 arrest and conviction for "disrespect, public disorder, and resistance," he was repeatedly abused and beaten in prison.

Displaying a flair for irony, he demanded treatment comparable to that which Fidel Castro endured when imprisoned by Fulgencio Batista in 1953. Instead, he was further mistreated and his prison sentence was lengthened from three to 36 years.

Zapata's only weapon was his own suffering, but his demand was not for himself. He fasted for the release of 22 other ill political prisoners. Upon his death in February, at age 42, there was a quick splash of negative headlines, and he was forgotten. A few weeks later, President Obama lifted the travel ban for those with relatives on the island and lifted other restrictions on contacts between Cuba and the United States.

Farinas, a psychologist, Cuban army veteran, and political "subversive," took up the gauntlet with his own hunger strike that now seems to have succeeded. "Seems" is the operative word since the Castro regime has often promised reforms without follow through. Even by its explicit terms, the government's agreement is to release only five prisoners immediately and the rest over the course of the next three or four months. All will leave the country.

Why the wait? Presumably, it's because the regime needs time to make its prisoners presentable. Bruises must heal. Weight must be gained. That sort of thing.

Here is a description of Cuban prison conditions from "The Black Book of Communism":

"Violence began with the interrogation ... Prisoners were forced to climb a staircase wearing shoes filled with lead and were then thrown back down the stairs. ... Working conditions were extremely harsh, and prisoners worked almost naked ... As a punishment, 'troublemakers' were forced to cut grass with their teeth or to sit in latrine trenches for hours at a time."

Cuba is a last redoubt of communism. Because Fidel Castro clings to life and to power, a veil still covers the island. Castro's crimes have scarcely begun to be revealed as he dodders toward a comfortable death in his bed. But enough, more than enough, is known. Between 1959 and the present, more than 100,000 Cubans have suffered in Castro's prisons and camps (some just for homosexuals). An estimated 17,000 were shot. Two million fled. Another 100,000 died attempting to escape.

All of this is known and has been for decades. And yet the image of Che Guevara continues to sell on t-shirts and posters around the globe.

Now Congress seems poised to lift all travel bans on Cuba and provide a tourism boon to the regime. A broad spectrum of Americans approves the legislation, including Republicans and Democrats, farmers and business interests. Fine. It may serve the interests of freedom at this point to permit trade with Cuba (though one suspects that the Chamber of Commerce is interested in the business angle). What is galling is to hear one and all describe the 50-year embargo as a "failed policy."

In what sense did it fail? We declined to help or support a criminal regime in any way. Yes, Castro claimed that his island's persistent and desperate poverty was due to the embargo, but so what? Anyone with eyes could see that Castro traded freely with Canada, Mexico, Latin America, Europe, Russia, China, and virtually everyone else. His special relationship with the USSR and later Venezuela is all that kept Cubans from starving like their ideological brothers in North Korea.

The day is coming when the true scope of Castro's reign of terror will be fully revealed. Perhaps then we will take some grim satisfaction in having attempted, however unsuccessfully, to strangle the beast.

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