Jewish World Review Sept. 13, 2002 / 7 Tishrei 5763

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

Foil Fidel with free trade | Next to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro is not looking so bad these days.

Not on Capitol Hill, anyway.

Suddenly the loosening of Cuba travel and trade restrictions has real momentum among Republicans as well as Democrats in Congress, despite President Bush's express wishes to keep the bans in place.

Travel and trade bans seem to be on their last legs and, as far as I am concerned, the change is long overdue, not only for the good of Cuba but also for the good of us, her neighbors to the north.

Having visited Cuba back in May, a week after Jimmy Carter became the first former American president to visit Castro, I'm more convinced than ever that the best way to kill Castro's communism is with capitalism-and lots of it.

I suspect that the Bush brothers feel the same way in their heart of hearts. Cuba trade is the only major issue on which George W. finds himself going against the grain of his strongest political base, the Republican Party's corporate wing.

"Support (for the embargo) will never waver here," he told a crowd of Cuban Americans in Miami while I was in Havana. "It's not going to waver in my heart, either."

Yet, the House in late July approved proposals by two Republican members to ease travel and trade restrictions, while leaving most of the 42-year-old trade embargo intact. Similar measures have passed the House before, but these appear to have unusually high chances of surviving the Senate and landing on Bush's desk.

The president has threatened to veto the measures. But, since they are attached as amendments to Treasury and Postal spending bills, he has a good excuse to sign the measures to avoid a budget crisis.

And that would be just fine. Even dissident Cubans and independent journalists with whom I spoke in Cuba agreed that the embargo helps Castro more than it hurts him. It gives the bearded one a convenient American scapegoat to blame for his island's many problems. It also isolates even further the dissidents and independent journalists who would like to see more political and economic freedoms.

The end of the cold war took the steam out of the Castro's image as a threat to Americans. Quite the opposite, the loss of more than a million dollars a day in subsidies when the Soviet Union collapsed forced Castro to enact drastic reforms, including legalizing the dollar and encouraging tourism.

The result is a dual economy at war with itself. Top pay scale for a doctor under Castro socialism comes to about $25-American per month. Bellhops and waitresses can make more than that in one evening of work at the spiffy new hotels that Castro's government operates in joint partnerships with European companies.

Unlike the old international sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime, the United States is the only country boycotting Cuba. Yet, more than 200,000 American tourists are estimated to be visiting Cuba illegally every year.

American corn and wheat farmers and numerous other producers would like to sell their wares to Cubans, who are eager to purchase them. Investors would follow, putting even more pressure on the Castro regime to allow private property, contracts and other reforms he needs to get his economy humming in a way that can unleash the entrepreneurial spirit so many Cubans already show in the island's thriving underground economy.

A sudden show of strong support by House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas), a longtime free-trade supporter, gave an important boost to the Cuba travel amendment, according to its sponsor Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).

Indeed, even among Cuban Americans, Miami-based pollsters like Sergio Bendixen and Florida International University's Dario Moreno are beginning to find majorities in favor of easing restrictions on travel, food, medicines and cultural exchanges.

"If economic sanctions continue for another year, Armey said before the vote, "it will be the last year they last."

If so, good riddance. The time has come to talk about what post-Castro Cuba will be like. Castro turned 76 in mid-August. Nobody lives forever, even if Castro, now working on his tenth U.S. president, shows a better than even sign of surviving this one, too.

Nevertheless, I could not find anyone inside or outside of the revolution in Havana who could say with much certainty who or what will follow when Castro is gone or when the trade embargo ends. His brother Raul, Fidel's designated successor, is only five years younger, not a spring chicken, either. After the Castros, what then?

The worst-case scenario for post-Castro Cuba is a massive power struggle with all of the brutality and chaos that one can imagine. The best-case scenario is the South African model of a smooth transition to democratic rule and a mixed economy that still could maintain the Castro revolution's two grandest achievements, free education and free health care. Imagine, say, a Caribbean version of Sweden.

The reality probably is going to be something in-between those two visions. America can help Cubans toward a better future, not as foes but as producers and consumers. First, we need to tear down the sugar-cane curtain that still stands between us.

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