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Daniel Ruth

U.S. backing out of Cuba dead end

For starters, can we all agree that Fidel Castro is a bad chap? Bad Fidel, bad dictator, very bad.

We can also reach common ground that Castro has been the Sonny Corleone of the Caribbean for 50 years. And a commie, to boot.

Not a fun guy. Show of hands?

And since we're on a roll of comity here, can we also conclude that U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba for the past half century has been a bigger debacle than Groucho Marx's Rufus T. Firefly taking Freedonia to war with Sylvania in Duck Soup because he was smitten with Margaret Dumont?

For five decades — and 10 presidents — the United States has treated our neighbor 90 miles to the south as if it was Snoop Dogg trying to gain admission to Augusta National. And where has it gotten anyone?

Trade embargoes, travel restrictions, saber rattling and, of course, the occasional stern harrumph — and yet Fidel Castro and his cronies appear to have not lost one wink of sleep and certainly hardly a missed meal.

During the eight years of the Bush 43 junta, this nation's approach to dealing with Cuba amounted to not much more than a towel-snapping blackball of the nation, as if you could manage diplomatic relations as a Skull & Bones initiation rite.

But then again, this has never been a Cuban foreign policy. It has been a South Florida Cuban foreign policy, which was about as myopic as formulating our approach to Poland based on the pulse of the residents along Chicago's Milwaukee Avenue.

For reasons more vague and obtuse than what Angelina Jolie ever saw in Billy Bob Thornton, the little Bush Rascals alighted on the notion that if they deprived Cuban immigrants in the United States the freedom to travel to their homeland to visit relatives or send their kin financial assistance, this act of petulance would bring Fidel Castro and his comrades to their knees. They would be begging the United States to please, please, please send down a case of The Federalist Papers posthaste to make things right.

The only folks who have ever suffered under the embargo or the travel/financial aid restrictions have been the Jose Six-Pack Cubans themselves, an onerous punishment made all the more insufferable by being denied free association with their families.

That's not a foreign policy. It's a homeowner association cabal armed with clipboards and pocket protectors run amok.

Immigrants from other nations have always been free to travel to their homelands regardless of how depraved, or oppressive, or ill-mannered their native governments — Vietnam, Iran, Syria, Egypt, even Venezuela, whose leader Hugo Chavez is at least as much of an egomaniacal nut as his Cuban counterpart.

And certainly no one would make the case the Chinese are infused with a sense of Jeffersonian democracy. If you did a per capita tyranny meter of the political prisoner and/or body count between Havana and Beijing, who do you think would win the gold medal for being due process-challenged?

Still, you are free to book a flight to China to your wonton's content. Have a nice time.

So it was more than a little refreshing to see the Obama administration acknowledge reality by easing travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans to travel freely to the island and send what they wish to relatives. At the same time, U.S. telecommunications companies will be free to negotiate contracts to provide television and mobile telephone service in Cuba. Capitalism — it's a pip is what it is.

President Barack Obama got it precisely right during his campaign when he noted "there are no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban-Americans." And it is awfully hard to promote those values when you treat Cuban-Americans wishing to visit their old homeland like steerage-class travelers.

In 1978, I spent some time in Cuba covering the state of cultural affairs 20 years after Castro's rise to power. Soviet MiGs lined the tarmac at Jose Marti airport. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (read: neighborhood snitches) were alive and all too well. Billboards proclaimed death to America. And to interview dissidents carried with it certain risks, which they were still more than willing to take.

Yet one warm evening a Havana taxi driver repeatedly refused to accept any money for the fare. He was, he explained, simply proud to have an American in his cab. That was more than enough.

Allowing this man, if he is still driving a hack in Havana, to freely receive any immigrant relatives he may have seems like a small gesture of appreciation for his personal struggle.

U.S. backing out of Cuba dead end 04/16/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 17, 2009 7:55pm]
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