Hard line, hard luck for Cuba

Rolando Prats Paez

June 07, 1993|By Rolando Prats Paez

Havana -- CUBANS, including the island's small group of human-rights activists and political dissidents, seem to be trapped between Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro.

The Cuban government seizes any excuse to delay reforms that will carry Cuba toward democracy and prosperity, while Washington is wed to an obsolete and counterproductive policy toward Cuba that provides all the pretexts Havana needs.

The policy of the United States seems nonsensical to much of the world.

In November the United Nations called on the United States to lift its embargo against Cuba. Only Romania and Israel voted with Washington.

And while a U.N. human-rights report earlier this year correctly criticized Cuba for violations, it also criticized the United States for a policy that worsens the island's standard of living.

The Cuban government needs to open up the country's political system and its economy which, since it lost its principal trade partner when the Soviet Union collapsed, has shrunk by 40 percent.

To rescue the economy the government should allow more private initiative and foreign investment.

Peaceful political dissidents have consistently called on it to do lTC just that -- and have often been beaten up and jailed. It is a price we are willing to pay.

We have been frustrated in our efforts not only by our own government but by successive administrations in Washington.

No government is likely to relax internal discipline and undertake liberalizing reforms just when a vastly more powerful neighbor has increased efforts to isolate it, starve it out and bring about its overthrow.

Yet, lamentably, with the passage of the so-called Torricelli legislation, which prohibits foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies from doing business in Cuba and bars ships that stop in Cuba from U.S. ports for the following six months, Washington has tightened the screws.

In the past, Cuban human-rights activists understood the strategic concerns behind Washington's hard line.

But the Cold War is over and those worries are no longer relevant.

Paradoxically, Washington's line has become even harder, giving the state security officers more excuses to repress dissidents, imposing new hardships on the people by suffocating the economy and stiffening the obstinacy of the Castro government.

Why does Washington pursue this policy?

Perhaps because it believes the predictions that the Cuban government will soon fall. If so, it is miscalculating. The economic crisis in Cuba is acute, but the country can survive at a subsistence level for a very long time.

Meanwhile, the repressive apparatus is strong enough to curb rising discontent. And although Cubans want change, they want a peaceful transition, not bloodshed.

To begin the journey to democracy, human-rights activists in Cuba have long called on the United States to negotiate its differences with the Cuban government, lift at least parts of the embargo and, by doing so, bring about a climate in which our leaders are more likely to initiate reforms.

We had little hope that the Republican administrations of the last 12 years would listen to us, and they did not.

They preferred to listen to a small group of ultra-conservative exiles in Miami who neither represent the majority of the Cuban-Americans nor speak for the almost 11 million people on the island.

Although Mr. Clinton's deference to Miami's leading right-wing Cuban, Jorge Mas Canosa, during the presidential campaign was troubling, we still hold out hope that the new administration will be different.

It is time for the United States to change its policy so as to help, rather than thwart, our struggle.

Rolando Prats Paez is a leader of the Social Democratic Movement, a pro-democracy group in Cuba.

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