Rethinking Cuba policy Pope's visit: Engagement helps open up Communist dictatorship.

January 24, 1998

IT IS DOUBTFUL Cuba can again be as tightly controlled as it was before Pope John Paul II's visit. Not that the island has freedom today. But it is now safe to advocate more discussion, greater freedoms for the Catholic Church, Catholic schooling and strictures against abortion. All of which contradict the monolithic line Fidel Castro has imposed with guns and secret police.

That does not bring back the seized property of Cubans who fled in Florida in 1960. It just makes life a little better and opportunities a little broader for the 10 million Cubans who never left. The likelihood is that the foot in the door for freedom of ideas will push it open further, and that more ideas than the pope's will become mentionable. That is what happened in Poland and Hungary.

The pope reportedly asked the dictator to free some prisoners; there are some 500 political prisoners in Havana jails. The main criticisms the pope made publicly of Communist Cuba he has also made of capitalist United States: that there is too much abortion and too little Catholic education. The main criticism he made of U.S. policy to please his host -- condemning the U.S. embargo as hurting Cuba's poor -- he has made before. Only the circumstances of repeating it were new and riveting.

Neither the U.S. nor Cuba is likely to revise abortion laws to suit the pope. Mr. Castro ought to release political prisoners and allow free discussion of issues not because the pope says so but because it is right. The U.S. ought to review its laws of embargo not because the pope says so but because the policy is self-defeating and revision would be right.

The dictator did not want an outpouring of people for the pope to outclass the crowds he gathers, so he put the machinery of government and party to work to fill the plazas. The pope did not use the opportunity merely to get his message across to the Cuban people. Realizing that Americans pay closer attention to what he says in forbidden Cuba than to what he said in Baltimore in 1995, he spoke for American ears.

The U.S. attempt to legislate its embargo for the rest of the world is presumptuous, doomed to fail and harmful to U.S. interests. It should be repealed. The effect of the U.S. unilateral embargo should be looked at unsentimentally for signs of success. If none can be found, the reason for its continuance is not clear. Broader loopholes for humanitarian goods such as food and medicine are called for in any case. If the embargo wasn't broke, there would be no need to fix it, but its most passionate advocates cannot say the thing is working.

Pub Date: 1/24/98

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