I have just come back from upstate New York's Chautauqua Institution with the week's theme having been Cuba. Keynote speakers included a Council on Foreign Relations analyst, a Cuban architectural historian, a member of the Cuban parliament, the editor of a Cuban magazine and a former Canadian ambassador to Cuba.
The presentations provoked thoughts on the state of U.S.-Cuban relations and on the current situation in Cuba, although I exonerate the speakers individually and collectively for what follows, as well as staid, intellectual Chautauqua, where I sometimes feel like a cobra among the garter snakes.
Bad U.S. relations with Cuba, an economically weak Caribbean island 90 miles off our shores, is a shameful blot on American policy and an example of America's leaders finding themselves unwilling or too blinded in terms of U.S. domestic politics to act sensibly and solve an unnecessary problem.
U.S.-Cuban relations from 1959 to 2009 comprise one of those chronicles where at numerous turns in the road there were opportunities to fix the problem. But at each of them, America, the overwhelmingly senior partner in the dance, instead found reasons, sometimes logical ones, to stomp on its partner's instep.
It's easy to see how U.S. relations with Fidel Castro's Cuba started badly. At the point that Fidel & Co. came to power Americans owned two-thirds of Cuba's assets. American crime organizations ran loose in Cuba. The country's president was Fulgencio Batista, a crooked dictator, very much America's kind of guy in Latin America at that point.
Mr. Castro's new government nationalized the Americans' assets, quite predictably. Instead of suggesting that we and the new government review the bidding, instead the United States under President Dwight E. Eisenhower, a Republican, and then John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, sought to bring down the new Cuban government. The means we employed were our normal favorites, violence, in the form of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and economic strangulation. Both failed miserably.
The grip that American business and organized crime had on the U.S. government at that point lent a Greek tragic inevitable quality to the two administrations' rejection of diplomacy in favor of attempts at assassination and violent overthrow, followed by seeking to smother what turned out to be the vigorous new infant in the cradle.
It was the Cold War, so the Russians quickly stepped into the gap. They stayed there until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and could no longer afford to sustain Cuba. Instead of taking steps to return to a more reasonable U.S.-Cuba relationship, the administration of George H. W. Bush, followed by that of Bill Clinton, instead rejoiced in the misery of a Cuba deprived of Soviet aid.
The sad line then in Cuba, a time referred to there as the "special period," ran as follows: "Cuba has only three problems -- breakfast, lunch and dinner." As Cuba attempted to pick itself up and brush itself off, like Pittsburgh when Big Steel left town, succeeding American administrations still counted on two nonpolicies to get rid of Mr. Castro and his regime: Wait for Cuba to collapse one day from economic and political isolation and wait for Fidel to die.
Since then, Fidel handed power over to brother Raul when the Grim Reaper began gaining on him, and Hugo Chavez, the president of oil-rich Venezuela, began collecting like-minded friends around the region. The United States still did not take advantage of Cuba's economic need, or the change in leadership, to move toward reasonable relations with its near neighbor, but continued instead to pursue the same, now hallowed, clumsy, obsolete approach.
Why hasn't this approach worked?
First, Cuba now knows that economically and politically it can live without the United States. Cubans do not like poverty, but they know they can endure it. Their health care system is fine. Their literacy rate is high. Tourism, nickel ore and sugar put some change in the country's pockets.
U.S. attempts to sell Cubans democracy have fallen flat. They know what Cuba was like under Batista and the American fat cats and mobsters. They also followed the 2000 electoral drama in nearby Florida with great interest. A court giving the presidency to the brother of the governor of Florida based on dubious electoral results was not un-Cuban in its dramatic evolution.
There may be another fork in the road of U.S.-Cuban relations coming up, based on a change in the U.S. presidency. Mr. Obama has taken no bold steps yet, but his administration is showing more grace and agility so far than the George W. Bush crew, which drew support from the extremist anti-Castro Cuban exile community in Florida.
There may be more wiggle room to work with on the Cuban side as well, if Mr. Obama's people have the wit to see it. Raul Castro does show signs of being less rigid in his attitude toward the United States. (It was his brother, not him, that we wanted to kill, a fine difference.)
Venezuela's Chavez also may be running low on money for Cuba as he "friends" more Latin American countries and becomes more alarmed at the U.S. military build-up in neighboring Colombia and the coup d'etat in Honduras, which was conducted by soldiers some of whom had been trained in the United States.
Here again, as the clock ticks on into the Obama administration with no bold steps taken toward Cuba -- for whatever reason -- the United States and Cuba risk sliding into another four or eight years of stasis. The United States, with increasing futility, continues to try to isolate Cuba, waiting for one or both Castros to die. Other Latin Americans become increasingly exasperated with us -- and still a little fearful of the militarized economic giant to the north, which remains unable to arrive at a reasonable relationship with a little nearby island.
If for nothing other than the longevity of the problem, fixing this one would put some points on the board for a president badly in need of a three-pointer in his foreign policy. Send Hillary. Send Joe Biden.
Dan Simpson , a former U.S. ambassador, is a Post-Gazette associate editor ( firstname.lastname@example.org , 412 263-1976).