HAVANA–To be in Cuba during the uproar over the plight of Élian González is to understand exactly how and why United States policy toward that island has failed for almost 40 years. Whatever the suffering Cubans may feel about their bearded leader, many of them clearly resent the idea that a son can be taken from his father by relatives simply because they happen to live in Florida.
Once more, the exiles in Miami have done precisely what Fidel Castro would have ordered them to do. The anti-Castro right-wingers have an amazing talent for bolstering their old enemy. Whenever he turns away from the microphones after an outraged speech, Mr. Castro must be laughing.
Cuba is a wonderful place to go with dollars in your pocket, as I did recently. The beauty of old Havana remains stunning, even in its present dilapidated state. Good food and great music are not difficult to find, and the people are remarkably welcoming to visiting yanquis despite the current tensions.
It is a considerably less wonderful place to live, especially if all you have to spend are pesos. The dual economy that has developed here in the aftermath of the Cold War is both cruel and unstable.
But if the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators demanding ” Liberen a Élian” were merely pretending to support El Jefe in his crusade against imperialismo , they certainly put on an impressive show. No doubt many of the workers and students bused to the rallies outside the U.S. Interests Section were required to show up by factory managers and school officials, yet the parades and speeches had the unmistakable feeling of an enormous street party, with none of the forced, joyless atmosphere that might be expected in a moribund Communist regime.
Meanwhile, thousands of exiles were pouring into the country from the United States for Christmas, thus expressing their own dissent from the policy that has kept their families apart for so many years. While they hate Castro as fervently as ever, their daily arrival at José Martí International Airport silently undermines the legitimacy of the embargo against his government.
Scholars and specialists believe that despite his rhetoric, Mr. Castro actually wants the embargo to continue. They say it represents his only excuse for the impoverished condition of his people, and some assert that if the sanctions were lifted, he would soon be swept from power by an uncontrollable surge of freedom. As a non-expert, I have my doubts; to me, it seems entirely possible that the crafty old dictator could manage such changes, and that his party might even survive a democratic test someday.
No one really knows what the effect of lifting sanctions would be. Lately, across the political spectrum, including American conservatives, farm and business groups and even some brave figures in the Cuban-American community, there is a growing eagerness to find out.
From the statements made by Presidential candidates of both parties, however, one might think this was 1969 rather than 1999. In the present crisis over Élian González, most of these worthies have simply recited the same clichés about Mr. Castro that always stifle fresh thinking. If Al Gore or Bill Bradley disagree with George W. Bush and John McCain about our Cuba policy, they haven’t bothered to articulate those differences. In fact, there’s no evidence that any of them has ever had an original thought on the subject.
A question that should be asked of all these ambitious gentlemen is how they square their opinions about China with their attitudes toward Cuba. Allowing for some variation, all of the leading Presidential hopefuls agree that the United States should continue the bipartisan policy of “engagement” with Beijing, including the expansion of trade and cultural connections. They insist that democratic freedoms and human rights in China will be enhanced through commerce.
They may eventually be proved right, but the absurdity of the Cuban embargo is only highlighted by contrast with the present policy toward China. The government in Havana certainly violates human rights, but not on a scale that approaches the daily atrocities committed by its comrades in Beijing. Cuba is not destroying Tibet or threatening Taiwan or persecuting Christians or enslaving millions in labor camps. Cuba is not engaged in nuclear espionage or the construction of advanced missile systems or the sale of weapons to other rogue states.
Still we continue to punish the Cuban people in a fashion that has had no noticeable effect on the Communist leadership. A famous man once said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting the result to be different. That is a perfect description of American policy toward Cuba, and everyone knows it. The worst disgrace is that neither the President nor any of the candidates to succeed him will dare to say so.