Let's do the right thing in Cuba

We've tried everything else for the past 45 years, and it hasn't done us, or Cuba, any good

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Sir Winston Churchill said once that Americans eventually do the right thing, but only after they try everything else. There is, however, an exception to Churchill's dictum. That exception is Cuba. When it comes to Cuba, the U.S. government continues to do the same thing even after trying it over and over again. U.S. policies concerning Cuba have not changed in 45 years.

Alejandro de la Fuente, author of "A Nation for All: Race, Inequality and Politics in Twentieth-Century Cuba," is an associate professor of Latin American history at the University of Pittsburgh (fuente2@pitt.edu).

Consider the scenario. Fidel Castro's health has deteriorated. His brother Raul has been forced to assume the functions of government, a role that he has performed since last July in a restrained manner. In a sense, the transition in leadership already has occurred and probably is irreversible.

What have we done? Absolutely nothing. We have ratified the same old policies of yesterday, made in the 1960s: an economic embargo that most Americans oppose, rules preventing Cuban Americans from visiting their relatives on the island, the same old prohibitions for Americans to travel there.

Meanwhile, officials in the Bush administration have criticized what outgoing Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte has called "a soft landing" -- efforts by Cuban authorities to maintain control and a sense of normalcy under these difficult circumstances. Is "a soft landing" in Cuba contrary to the interests of the United States? The alternative would be civil strife, chaos and violence 90 miles away from our shores. What would Cubans do if faced with such an eventuality? Die in peace? Endure repression?

They would take to the sea. They would call on their brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, mothers, fathers and friends on the other side of the Florida Strait and ask for their help. Tens of thousands would try to reach U.S. territory, in many cases with the assistance and support of relatives in south Florida. Such a landing in Cuba would be hard ... on us.

Yet Mr. Negroponte has declared, literally, that "a soft landing" in Cuba is contrary to U.S. interests. "From the point of the United States policy, we don't want to see that happen," AP quoted him as stating. "We want to see the prospects for freedom in that country enhanced as a result of the transition." Does the director of national intelligence really believe that the prospects for freedom will increase with a violent transition in Cuba? That violence will sow the seeds of Cuba's freedom?

It takes my undergraduate students only a few hours to realize what the director of national intelligence denies: that a violent change in the island would represent a massive challenge to U.S. policy makers. But blindness is not a disease of this official alone: Blindness is official U.S. policy.

Raul Castro has issued statements that any government other than the one in Washington would have read as positive. Speaking on Dec. 2, the day his brother Fidel was supposed to address the Cuban people and celebrate his 80th birthday, Raul Castro declared publicly: "We take this opportunity to once again state that we are willing to resolve at the negotiating table the long-standing dispute between the United States and Cuba -- of course, provided they accept, as we have previously said, our condition as a country that will not tolerate any blemishes on its independence, and as long as said resolution is based on the principles of equality, reciprocity, noninterference and mutual respect."

In November and December, four well-known dissidents, including one who had been imprisoned since the crackdown on activists in 2003, were released from prison. And in a speech to university students in December, Raul Castro called on Cuba's youth to debate "fearlessly" and acknowledged that the rule of his generation was coming to an end. "We have to give way to new generations," he declared.

The administration responded to these overtures by claiming that hardliners were rising to key positions in Cuba. Any hopeful sign given by Cuban authorities has been summarily dismissed as meaningless. The head of the State Department's Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau declared that the regime was becoming "more orthodox" and that the resumption of a dialogue with Cuba was contingent not only on the release of political prisoners, but on other significant changes, such as elections, protection of human rights and the establishment of independent organizations.

In other words, Washington expects Cuban authorities to surrender power and transform the island's political structure in order to talk with the United States. Then, and only then, would a dialogue be possible.

There are at least two problems with this approach. It is unlikely that the Cuban leaders will follow this path of self-destruction. And if they did, there would be nothing left to talk about.

In the meantime, the U.S. government surrenders the little influence it may have to contribute to a peaceful democratic transition in Cuba. All we can do is wait. Almost 50 years have passed, Fidel Castro is dying, and we are still in the midst of Churchill's "everything else."


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