Thursday, February 1, 2007

Palm Beach Post Editorial

New reasons for Cuba opening wash ashore

Friday, January 05, 2007

Cubans don't get many opportunities to express themselves freely. When it happens, Americans need to pay attention.

A Gallup poll released last month found that 47 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed in Havana and Santiago approve of their leaders' job performance; 40 percent disapprove. Gallup researchers described the results as a "fascinating portrayal of a populace living with the paradoxes of a communist regime." Not the least of the paradoxes is that Fidel Castro's approval rating is higher than President Bush's. It isn't that life is great in Cuba; the economy looks as emaciated as El Jefe, and the infrastructure is just as frail. It's more that Cubans remain fiercely defiant to judgments and criticism from the outside.

The United States has spent nearly a half-century helping to cultivate this defiance with a trade embargo and Cold War-era isolation diplomacy. Castro's remarkable longevity stems in part from his ability to transfer blame for Cubans' hardships to U.S. policy. The Gallup poll also found that 44 percent of Cubans considered the U.S. an "ideal partner" for more trade. Yet, the White House continues to sow isolation and reap defiance, to the benefit of the communist regime, and Florida's leading politicians just renewed their vows to the embargo.

In fact, engagement makes more sense now than ever, with Castro's transfer of power to brother Raul. There is common concern between both countries that Castro's death might make the transfer permanent, that could touch off a repeat of the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which brought 125,000 people across the Florida Straits, and the other exodus of rafters from Cuba in 1994.

The size of Cuba's offshore oil deposits is still uncertain, but both countries - and especially the Florida Keys - have a stake in ensuring that the environment is protected before drilling begins in earnest. Last month, a delegation of 10 congressmen met with Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque in Havana and discussed improving communications. Raul Castro has offered to open a dialogue. The countries have much to discuss, and the United States concedes nothing by talking.

Fidel Castro's failing health has created unreasonable expectations, particularly among some exile groups, of imminent democratic reforms in Cuba. Castro, however, has had a leadership structure in place for years to preserve communist rule after his much-awaited death. Raul, as a leader, is Castro Lite but hardly Thomas Jefferson. The idea that a new revolution is on the horizon is wishful thinking.

The United States does have an opportunity to engage and help shape the future in Cuba and throughout Latin America, where socialist regimes are sprouting. Embargo politics outlived its usefulness decades ago.

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