Monday, December 29, 2008

Fifty years ago, on Jan. 1, 1959, Fidel Castro and his guerrilla band took over Cuba, a day after its dictator president, Fulgencio Batista, fled the country when the United States withdrew its support. At the time, Mr. Castro, then 32, painted himself as a sort of Jeffersonian democrat, and he was given a ticker-tape parade in New York and spoke at Harvard. It was not until June 6, 1961, when the liberals’ darling acknowledged that he had been a Communist since he was 17 years old.

Contrary to the canard that he was driven into the arms of the Soviet Union by U.S. intransigence, he acknowledged — “No one drove me into the arms of Moscow. I studied these matters carefully and came to the conclusion that Marxism-Leninism offered the only logical explanation for human history - past, present and future.” He, North Korea and scattered American college professors are the only remaining purists still holding these views; even capitalistic China, Vietnam and the former Soviet bloc have long since changed to varying degrees.

Mr. Castro, on the other hand, has not changed one iota in the past half-century. Nor has he changed the iron grip he has imposed on the 11.2 million Cuban people still on the island, which excludes untold thousands who have fled or drowned trying.

Toilet paper is in short supply, the Internet is generally unavailable, people can eat meat only a few times each month, cell phones were banned until recently. Civil and political rights are simply not alive. A dictator for 50 years, Mr. Castro has been ill for several years. He handed the reins off to a brother, Raul, who in February replaced him as president (no popular election required; the rubberstamp legislature did it for them.)

For 47 years, since the Cuban missile crisis, the United States has maintained a trade embargo on most relations with Communist Cuba, with a substantial part of the impetus coming from the strong Cuban-American community, comprised of people who fled the oppression of Castro and his henchmen years ago. As that group has aged, allowable food trade has expanded to $600 million annually and tourism restrictions have eased. (Cuba received $2.2 billion last year from foreigners). Meanwhile, there have been increasing calls for a change in U.S. policy.

Unfortunately, President-elect Barack Obama may have joined the chorus. While it sounds plausible that ending the embargo will help push Cuba toward a Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism, assist Cuban people and perhaps ultimately lead to greater freedoms, the reality is that Cuba has not in 50 years shown one meaningful sign that anything positive will change under Fidel or Raul Castro. What the United States has done has just propped up the regime.

In 1980, softhearted President Carter tried to improve relations, and he got the Mariel boatlift as an embarrassing thanks. President Clinton tried 20 years later, and he got the Elian Gonzalez custody debacle. This month, the Russian navy sent three ships on a visit to Cuba, as those two nations tweaked the U.S. Raul Castro recently opened a Caribbean summit by vowing to fight the United States for another half-century if necessary. The brutal government holds at least 219 “political” prisoners.

Mr. Obama has said he wants to improve relations with Cuba, and is willing to talk to Fidel and Raul Castro with few restrictions. He said he would start by lifting restrictions on relatives, allowing regular trips to Cuba, letting them sending relatives in Cuba whatever amount of money they wanted to send. (President Bush in 2004 had tightened restrictions on Cuban-Americans, limiting them to one visit to immediate family members every three years and allowing them to send no more than $1,200 a year.)

But a number of analysts warn that lifting restrictions on travel and money only strengthens the regime without helping the people, and that at best only a small minority of people benefit. At various times in the past two decades the Cuban government has allowed private enterprise and financial exchanges, then crushed it when it started to present a danger to the regime.

Mr. Obama would be wise - and would avoid a potentially humiliating embarrassment with rippling effects on many other areas of foreign policy - if he took a long, hard look at Cuba under the Castros before making any unilateral concessions. Since the Cuban leopard hasn’t changed its spots in the past half-century, there is virtually no reason to believe it will be so charmed by Mr. Obama’s smiling visage that it will suddenly do so and purr like a kitten.

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