Friday, October 26, 2007

Newsday Column Response to Bush Speech

Bush's hardline Cuba policy buys Castro more time
James Klurfeld

Newsday, October 26, 2007

OK, we all understand what President George W. Bush was really up to in the speech he gave on Wednesday about Cuba.

In asserting that Cuba would have to change its government before the United States would end its decades-long economic embargo of the island, he was really saying: We are about to enter a presidential election year, and Cuban-Americans who continue to favor a hard-line U.S. approach are an important voting bloc in a swing state like Florida.

But that doesn't mean that Bush's policy makes any sense. It doesn't. In fact, his policy doesn't make any more sense now than the policy of isolation followed for the past 40-plus years by both Democratic and Republican regimes. And there are at least some indications that even some in the Cuban-American community are beginning to realize that a policy of active engagement, of allowing U.S. citizens to visit Cuba - not to mention opening trade and cultural relations - might well have more impact on forcing change in Cuba than the stale, old policy of isolation.

"Life on the island will not improve," said Bush, "by exchanging one dictator for another. It will not improve if we seek accommodation with a new tyranny in the interests of stability."

The president was referring to the fact that Fidel Castro's brother, Raul, seems to have been running the country ever since Fidel took seriously ill last year. Bush said he was ready to allow cultural and information exchanges with Cuba ... but the regime had to show it was embracing democratic principles first. And he called for an open rebellion by the Cuban people.

This not only smacks of the Yankee arrogance that has been so repugnant over the years to many in Latin America, especially Cubans of all political stripes, it's a policy that has its priorities exactly wrong. If we learned anything from the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and 1990s, it was that exposure to Western principles of openness and free markets were critical factors in eroding the already discredited Communist regimes there. Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev says in his autobiography that one of the greatest influences on his own thinking came from his travels to Western Europe and Canada before he took power.

This principle is so self-evident that Bush's rhetoric sounds like a "Saturday Night Live" parody of a Red-baiting pol from decades ago. Calling on the Cuban people to throw out the Castro brothers and establish a democratic regime as a prerequisite to a U.S. opening is stunningly wrong-headed.

I traveled to Cuba some years ago (before Bush took office, when it was easier to do) and found that the people there didn't need to be told that the Communist revolution had been a bust. You could see it in the dilapidated roads and infrastructure, in the lack of adequate housing, in young people's thirst for knowledge about the outside world and access to the Internet, in their private disdain and quiet mockery of Fidel himself.

After the Soviet Union fell and could no longer prop up Castro's government with huge subsidies, the regime almost went under. It was only by loosening state economic control that it was able to survive. That's when Western European countries and others, including China, began to make large economic investments in Cuba - investments that U.S. companies have missed out on.

The argument isn't about whether we should have any admiration for Castro's Communist Cuba. That verdict has already been made by history, and it's thumbs down. The question is how to best bring about change.

I came away from my trip believing that the Castro brothers would never really accept U.S. offers for a better relationship because they know such exchanges would only speed their demise and their failed system's reformation.

Now I imagine the brothers are applauding Bush's hard-line speech. It's just what they need to stay in power a little longer.

Copyright © 2007, Newsday Inc.

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