- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

President Bush yesterday called the bluff of an aging dictator, promising to ease trade and travel restrictions on Cuba if next year's elections for the island's so-called legislature are "certifiably free and fair" and if Cuba adopts market-based reforms. In doing so, Mr. Bush outlined a bold strategy, abandoning the conventional deference to or isolation of Cuba for an innovative, conditional engagement. Mr. Bush also put the ball squarely in Fidel Castro's court by calling on the dictator to follow the democratic laws of his own creation and promising rewards for compliance. During former President Jimmy Carter's visit to Cuba last week, Mr. Castro said numerous times that Cuba enjoys democracy. Mr. Bush has given him the opportunity to prove it.

Mr. Bush made it clear that Washington has no desire to call the shots for Havana. The Cubans can do that themselves through democracy. With that end in mind, Mr. Bush said, "under the Initiative for a New Cuba, the United States recognizes that freedom sometimes grows step by step. And we'll encourage those steps." This policy makes a break with some strident calls from Miami for making any opening towards Cuba contingent on Mr. Castro's ouster.

Mr. Bush also helpfully reminded Mr. Castro what Cuba's own constitution dictates: " 'The National Assembly is composed of deputies elected by free, direct and secret vote.' That's what the constitution says. Yet, since 1959, no election in Cuba has come close to meeting these standards. In most elections, there has been one candidate, Castro's candidate."

But Mr. Castro has grown rather partial to his fiefdom and might be less than inclined to loosen his grip on despotic power. For this reason, Mr. Bush also articulated his vision for reaching out to Cubans by easing restrictions on humanitarian assistance and directly funding non-governmental and religious organizations that give humanitarian assistance and help build civil society in Cuba.

Mr. Bush said his government would offer U.S. scholarships for Cuban students and professionals involved in erecting civil institutions in Cuba and for the family members of political prisoners. He would also negotiate direct-mail service between the United States and Cuba. Also, Mr. Bush said he would try to modernize Radio and TV Marti because "even the strongest walls of oppression cannot stand when the floodgates of information and knowledge are opened."

Mr. Castro has long depended on Cuba's geographic isolation to perpetuate his despotic rule, but the voice of freedom tends to echo powerfully. With Mr. Bush's new strategy, Mr. Castro's "walls of oppression" may eventually give way to "the floodgates of information and knowledge." Mr. Bush has clearly put the onus on Mr. Castro to implement his own laws and give Cuba what every other country in the Western hemisphere enjoys democracy.

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