- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 19, 2002

HAVANA, Cuba Roberto Alarcon, well-dressed but of unexceptional appearance, is thought to be the No. 3 man in Cuba,after

only Fidel and Raul Castro. He lazily sprawled in his chair before eight American journalists, fondling his cigar.

Asked about Havana's willingness to negotiate with the United States over its embargo against his country, Mr. Alarcon responded: There's "no reason to consider negotiating a failing policy."

And failing it is. For more than four decades, the United States has unsuccessfully attempted to isolate Cuba's communist regime. Fidel Castro burst onto the international stage in 1959 by deposing the corrupt Fulgencio Batista and turning Cuba into a Soviet outpost. The United States responded with a botched invasion by Cuban emigres and an economic embargo.

But the Cuban economy was buoyed by Soviet subsidies. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed a decade ago, American supporters of the embargo promised Mr. Castro's time had come.

For instance, in February 1992, Jorge Mas Canosa of the Cuban American National Foundation declared: "The economy is going to collapse by the summertime." Two years later, Heritage Foundation analyst John P. Sweeney announced: Mr. Castro's "final collapse may be closer than ever before."

Alas, Mr. Castro is still in power. So the embargo's advocates now say they hope to limit Havana's resources.

Yet tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans visit Cuba annually and even more send an estimated $700 million in remittances to relatives in Cuba every year. The Cuban-American community violates the rules imposed on everyone else.

While the embargo may deny the Castro regime some dollars, Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, complains that it "gives the government a good alibi to justify the failure of the totalitarian model in Cuba." Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, head of the U.S. Interests Section (America's quasi-embassy) in Havana, agrees: "Castro has found the embargo to be convenient to him," since he "uses it very effectively all the time, making us the Goliath and Cuba the David."

Of course, as Mr. Sanchez, who has spent more than eight years in Castro's prisons, explains, the nation's economic problems are due not to the embargo, but to "the impact of totalitarian measures" by a regime that is "repressive and inefficient." Brutal collectivism has frozen this entrepreneurial people in the 1950s.

Unfortunately, the embargo, supported by no one else, does limit the potentially destabilizing impact of U.S. visitors and investors.

Although American business is not in Cuba, American dollars are. Around Havana's tourist hotels, Cubans sidle up to foreigners promoting paladares, or private restaurants, offering purloined cigars, and begging for a handout.

Cubans can shop at stores where everything from food to stoves is priced in dollars. When asked about such blatant inequality, Roberto Alarcon responded that the situation is fairer than a decade ago, when it was illegal for anyone to hold dollars though some did so anyway. But the growing pervasiveness of the dollar, to which up to 60 percent of Cubans have some access, has created a widespread awareness that the Cuban economy combines poverty with inequality.

With human-rights activists and independent journalists spreading across the island, American trade, investment and travel would pose an even greater challenge to Mr. Castro's government. For this reason, Mr. Sanchez and most other dissidents advocate lifting sanctions.

Of course, he admits, in the short-term, money brought to Cuba that ends up in Mr. Castro's hands "will be used for repression." Nevertheless, "it would be more fruitful over the long-term if people from democratic states came to Cuba." In fact, because of the inevitably destabilizing influence of American engagement, Mr. Sanchez suggests "that the Cuban government really doesn't want the embargo to be lifted." Some U.S. officials privately share Mr. Sanchez's view.

One speculates that the Castro government believes it "can risk the lifting of the travel ban," but doesn't want the end of "the whole thing." In this way, it can "prop up the economy with little risk."

Making the political scene even more volatile is the nervous wait for 75-year-old Fidel Castro to pass from the scene. None of his potential successors possess his outsize reputation and admitted charisma.

Communism is no longer a serious intellectual or geopolitical force. Even its practitioners seem dissatisfied: Mr. Alarcon terms unlikely "a return to the type of socialism represented by the Soviet Union."

Still, he doesn't offer the alternative of freedom, which is what the people of Cuba desperately need. And it is something that the United States cannot impose on Cuba.

But Washington would better encourage liberty by lifting its counterproductive embargo. Sanctions have failed. It is time to see if Havana can cope with the demands of its own people as they increasingly taste the fruit of participating in the global marketplace.

Doug Bandow is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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