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The U.S. embargo and Cuba's future

When Fidel Castro dies, will Cuba's communist dictatorship die too?

Absolutely, says a prominent Western diplomat in Havana. "I believe the whole system will be gone within two or three years after Castro dies."

Absolutely not, says Ricardo Alarcon, the powerful president of Cuba's parliament. "There will be the same system afterward," he recently told a group of American journalists. "Cuba has already evolved. We aren't going to discover evolution after Fidel leaves us."

In truth, no one knows what will happen when Castro shuffles off this mortal coil, just as no one knows when that will happen. El Jefe is 75. His health seems good. He could remain in power for another year _ or another decade.

But why must political change await his death? Oswaldo Paya, the founder of Cuba's Christian Liberation Movement, derides that attitude as "biological fatalism." Unwilling to delay all hope of democratic reform until Castro dies, Paya two years ago launched the Varela Project, a massive petition drive in support of new laws that would ensure freedom of speech and assembly, provide amnesty for political prisoners, legalize private businesses, and unrig Cuban elections. It is based on Article 88 of the Cuban Constitution, which requires that a proposed law be put to a public vote if 10,000 citizens sign a petition supporting it.

A pipe dream? Perhaps. More than 10,000 signatures have been collected (though not yet submitted), but no one expects Castro to abide by Article 88. Yet that just makes the Varela Project all the more extraordinary. The government has arrested, and sometimes beaten, dozens of signature collectors; Cubans who sign know that they are inviting retaliation. But they sign nevertheless. "With great serenity and resolution," reports Paya, "citizens are saying, Here is my name, my ID number, my address."

And what, meanwhile, of the American embargo on Cuban trade and travel? Whose interests does it serve?

A growing coalition of U.S. critics _ liberal Democrats, Catholic bishops, agribusiness giants, libertarian free-traders _ argues that the embargo is an antiquated relic. Far from weakening Castro, they say, the embargo props him up: It gives him a scapegoat to rail against and an excuse for all his failures. By contrast, lifting the embargo would kick away that crutch and expose Cuba to American ideas and influence. "There is no surer way to undermine the Castro regime," The Economist claims, "than to flood his streets with American tourists, academics and businessmen, with their notions of liberty and enterprise."

I don't buy it.

The embargo has its drawbacks, but the case against it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Cuba may not be inundated with Americans _ though 80,000 of them did visit the island last year _ but the past decade has brought a huge influx of Canadians and Europeans. Their influence and exports and "notions of liberty and enterprise" haven't weakened Castro's grip _ the result, in part, of Cuba's "tourist apartheid," which bars ordinary Cubans from mixing with foreigners in hotels, restaurants, and beaches.

Castro blames Cuba's shambles of an economy and endless shortages on the embargo, but there isn't a Cuban over the age of 7 who doesn't recognize that as just another of his lies. What has wrecked Cuba's economy is communism, not a lack of trade with America. After all, Castro is free to do business with every other nation on earth.

And make no mistake: Doing business with Cuba means doing business with Castro. There is no private property in Cuba, no private enterprise, no private employers. Foreign investors must deal with the government. They cannot hire Cuban workers directly; a government agency chooses their workers for them. The investors pay Castro for each worker; Castro in turn pays the workers a fraction of that amount _ in all-but-worthless pesos.

So long as Cuba's dictator maintains his stranglehold on every aspect of Cuban life, ending the embargo would be counterproductive. It would do nothing to end the far more restrictive embargo that Castro imposes on the Cuban nation. It would give him the propaganda victory and the U.S. dollars he craves, but it would do little to bring liberty or hope to ordinary Cuban citizens.

Every president since JFK has extended the Cuban embargo; to lift it in exchange for nothing _ no free elections, no civil liberties _ would be a betrayal of the very people we want to help. Tiende tu mano a Cuba, says Paya when I ask what he thinks of American policy, pero primero pide que le desaten las manos a los cubanos. Extend your hands to Cuba _ but first unshackle ours.

+ Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. +

Boston Globe