- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 15, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Fifty years after they came to power, Fidel Castro is relaxing in his dotage and his brother Raul recently cemented his grip on power. That U.S. policy has been a failure is something we don't need to argue about anymore.

Conservatives should offer President Obama their support for a change in policy. And because he will need their support, they should demand in exchange a seat at the table. But first, conservatives should rethink their entire position on Cuba.

That conservatives need to be involved in shaping U.S. policy was demonstrated last week by the visit of the Congressional Black Caucus to Cuba. The CBC topped its total lack of interest in Cuba's appalling human rights record with fawning visits to the Castro brothers.

For Rep. Bobby L. Rush, Illinois Democrat, talking with Fidel was like “listening to an old friend.” Perhaps it wasn't the right time to visit with Cuban dissidents, but there was no reason to demoralize them by failing to mention them and instead heaping witless praises on the revolution. When it comes to Cuba, liberals need constant reminding that human rights and economic freedoms matter.

On the other hand, the past 50 years have demonstrated how much can be achieved through a policy of adamant anti-communism - namely, nothing. Many conservatives know this but stick to the embargo anyway out of stalwart loyalty. What they don't realize is that their position is almost as demoralizing to Cuba's dissidents as the unseemly groveling of the CBC.

In the beginning of 2007, virtually every major dissident leader in Cuba signed a letter to President Bush asking him to lift the restrictions on travel and remittances by U.S. citizens to Cuba. Swayed by the passionate opposition of well-connected Cuban-Americans, Mr. Bush ignored the dissidents, and the restrictions stayed in place until Mr. Obama finally lifted them this week.

The new Obama policy just turns the clock back to 2000. Cuban-Americans will be free to visit their families and even will be free to bring clean toothbrushes with them as gifts. What's interesting is the proposal to make telecom investment a major new exception to the embargo: Nothing empowers democratic forces more than the free exchange of ideas.

The White House was quiet about the future, but Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has laid out a sensible series of next steps. Mr. Lugar calls for certain important measures we can take immediately beyond those announced by Mr. Obama, most important of which is lifting restrictions on the freedom of movement of Cuban diplomats in the United States and establishing bilateral and multilateral working groups on migration, drug trafficking, commerce, health care and similar issues. But Mr. Lugar still leaves major changes up to Cuba: “The timing of policy reforms and elimination of embargo restrictions would depend on the evolution of negotiations.” The trouble is that the Cuban government isn't negotiating for anything. It has everything it needs, and it demonstrated during the 1990s that attempts to starve it will not bring it down.

There is no point in perpetuating the pretense that we are ever going to negotiate a relaxation of the embargo. The communists have no interest in an end to it. The embargo gives them isolation and a big enemy who is not a threat - two things the regime vitally needs in order to survive. The problems in the current policy are not marginal. There is nothing good about it and no reason to maintain it.

The time has come for a big bang: a Nixon-style opening to Cuba, a celebratory embrace of governments and peoples that moves rapidly toward full diplomatic and commercial relations. Expanding diplomatic contacts will reveal natural allies within the Cuban regime. Liberalizing commerce will help expose Cuba's economy to the opportunities and challenges of globalization. As our relations with Cuba expand, so will our negotiating influence. When Cuban officials have something to lose in their relations with us, we can think about negotiations.

Meanwhile, if we align our position with that of the Vatican, Europe and Latin America, we will be able to start forging a united front with them on Cuba. The benefits could be enormous. We could start to triangulate between Cuba and Venezuela, further isolating the latter. In exchange for a U.S. commitment to allow Cuba membership in the Organization of American States, Mr. Obama should be able to extract from our Latin American allies a robust set of commitments to work for human rights in Cuba.

In exchange for lifting all restrictions on U.S. investment, we could get other countries to limit their new projects to those in which they can pay Cuban workers part of their salaries directly. U.S. diplomacy on Cuba should focus on building consensus with everyone else. That is Mr. Obama's great opportunity at the Summit of the Americas this weekend.

Mr. Obama is unlikely to risk so bold a step so long as he feels vulnerable to a conservative backlash, especially from the volatile and powerful Cuban-American community. But Mr. Obama needs to understand that conservative Cuban-Americans are no longer unified on this issue. They are divided along basically the same lines that divided Republicans during the early Cold War, when there was a tension between flexible realists like President Eisenhower and adamant anti-communists like his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles.

At the time, strategically minded conservatives criticized Mr. Dulles, not because they were any less hostile to communism but because his approach was so blindly intransigent that it was bound to produce unpredictable and unfortunate consequences. This is what Winston Churchill meant when he said, “Dulles is the only case of a bull I know who carries his china closet with him.”

Mr. Dulles flatly rejected the strategy of reaching out to moderate communists, seeking instead to inspire dissidents to take direct action. But when they did, they lived to regret it: In East Germany in 1953 and Hungary in 1956, the dissidents were demoralized to discover that neither the United States nor anyone else was willing to lift a finger for them.

The Dulles approach to China was just as counterproductive. He rejected any friendly overtures from Communist China as a ruse, insisted the Chinese would not abide by their agreements and sought to punish other countries - including Britain - that dared to disagree.

It wasn't until the presidency of Richard Nixon, originally one of the most anti-communist of senators, that the United States finally lifted travel and trade restrictions for China. Soon after, the United States lifted its opposition to Beijing taking China's seat at the United Nations. A few years later, we formally recognized the government of Communist China. In the turbulent years since then, American investment has poured into the country, catalyzing a spectacular transformation of Chinese society from backward agriculture to entrepreneurial capitalism.

Conservatives should stop to think that what made President Reagan successful against the Soviets was his ability to balance the flexible realism and empathy of Mr. Eisenhower with the moral conviction of Mr. Dulles. A similar approach to Cuba, one that focuses on free exchange between governments and peoples, will shine a global spotlight on the reality of Cuba, the failures of the Cuban Revolution and the needless suffering of ordinary Cubans.

A change like that will no doubt make some Cuban-Americans angry - including my own family - but they'll get over it. Our main concerns have to be the well-being of the Cuban people and the long-range global interests of the United States. Both demand a sweeping and historic change in U.S. relations with Cuba.

Mario Loyola, the former counsel for foreign and defense affairs to the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee, is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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