Tuesday, February 19, 2008

End of an Era in Cuba

The announcement of Fidel Castro's retirement as Cuba's primary leader represents the end of an era - to a point. In fact, the installation of his brother promises little substantive change. Moreover, as long as Fidel remains alive and conscious, he will continue to exert influence over Cuba's course, even if that leadership is only symbolic. Reacting to the news, President Bush has again displayed his political naivete by declaring that Cuba should now welcome reform and the "blessings of democracy." (Rather than pontificate on Cuba's future, Mr. Bush should first contemplate bestowing the "blessings" of a democratic system on some of the forgotten parts of the U.S.)

At the height of the Cold War one could argue that Cuba represented a strategic hub and potential flash point. The Cuban Missile Crisis certainly illustrated its significance as a potential striking point from which the Soviet Union might attack the United States. Given the anti-Soviet "containment policy" which shaped American foreign policy for more than 40 years after World War II, one can easily understand the U.S. embargo against Cuba. But in the years since the Soviet Union's collapse, that embargo has made less and less sense. Certainly Cuba no longer enjoys the strategic significance it maintained in the 1960s and 70s. In economic terms it is a poor player in Caribbean and Latin American affairs. Yet Castro - and by association, Cuba and its people - have remained a symbolic "bogeyman" in our back yard, periodically rebuked by both Democratic and Republican administrations. Acknowledging the changing political landscape of the last 20 years, policies designed to punish Castro and Cuba seem ideologically untenable, borne of monolithic anti-Communism.

Of course, many liberal Americans have been calling for a revision of our Cuba policy for years. But conservatives, backed by the powerful Cuban lobby in south Florida, have continued to wave the red flag of anti-Communism, calling for "democratic" reforms in Cuba as a condition for friendlier relations and aid. What few of these hardliners like to talk about is the utter oppressiveness of the U.S.-backed Batista regime that was overthrown by Cuban revolutionaries in 1959. Moreover, they don't like to acknowledge the successes wrought by Castro and his government over the last 50 years. For example, although the country remains desperately poor, its people enjoy access to an educational system and medical care that are the envy of Latin America.

In the last year of his presidency Bush seems desperate to rescue the historical legacy of his administration with foreign policy initiatives. His domestic policies have failed miserably, unless one counts tax cuts for corporate interests and the wealthy as benchmarks of success. If Mr. Bush really wants to make a difference abroad, he should announce the end of the U.S. embargo against Cuba and offer an aid package to the Cuban people - with no strings attached. At this point, he has nothing to lose politically. And since he's so anxious to divert attention from the quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, a revised Cuba policy presents itself as a decidedly humanitarian option. Sure, aiding Cuba won't wash the wasted blood of thousands from his hands, but it certainly represents a start for an administration that has perhaps irreparably soiled this country's reputation.

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