An obsolete exercise

March 05, 2000|By DeWayne Wickham

VARADERO, Cuba -- Around the pool at the Club Tropical hotel, a small group of Polish tourists lay about in lounge chairs. Their milk-white bodies shifted quickly to catch some sun every time there was a break in the overcast sky.

Nearby, Ruben Remigio Ferro, the president of Cuba's 40-member Supreme Court, ate lunch with his wife and 12-year-old son in the "all-inclusive" hotel that is a favorite haunt of Eastern European tourists.

The hotel is in the center of this city, a seaside resort on a narrow strip of land that's wedged between the Bay of Cardenas and the Florida Straits. Back in 1959 when Fidel Castro chased Fulgencio Batista from power, Varadero had 500 hotel rooms. Today it has 11,500 rooms. By the year 2010, Cuban tourism officials say that number will double.

Thirty-eight years after the United States first imposed a trade and travel embargo against Cuba, the growth of this popular tourist resort is the most compelling evidence of the failure of this economic stranglehold. While the noose around Cuba's neck has made life difficult for its 11 million people, it hasn't come close to achieving its goal of toppling Mr. Castro.

The embargo is the Berlin Wall of the post-Cold War period. It's an ideological firewall that strains relations between politicians in Washington and Havana -- and a symbol of diplomatic arm-twisting that has virtually no popular support among dissidents here in Cuba. The embargo is championed largely by white Cuban expatriates in South Florida, many of whom were the beneficiaries of the Batista regime, which treated this nation's Afro-Cuban majority with great disdain.

It may have made sense to foist an economic blockade upon Cuba in February 1962, a few months after the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. Back then, this communist nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida was a client state of the Soviet Union.

Eight months after the embargo was put in place, the Cuban missile crisis erupted when a U.S. spy plane discovered Russian nuclear missiles on the island.

But now, nearly four decades after the missiles were removed and eight years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the embargo exists for no good reason -- except to pander to the Cuban exiles' hope of regaining the privileged positions they held before Mr. Castro came to power.

That's not going to happen.

Cuba's no paradise, but it's also no longer the economic basket case it became when the massive infusion of Soviet foreign aid disappeared with the fall of "the Evil Empire." Buoyed by the billions of U.S. dollars that seep into Cuba through holes in the embargo, the country's economy is on the mend.

The Old Havana section of the Cuban capital is dotted with scaffolding for renovation projects and hotel construction sites. Cuba is depending on the growing number of tourists to energize its economy. They come mostly from Europe and Canada. Ironically, while the State Department condemns Cuba for restricting its people's right to travel abroad, all but a few U.S. citizens are forbidden from entering the country by government officials in Washington -- not Havana.

The biggest loser in the economic warfare the United States is waging against Cuba are the U.S. businesses that are missing out on this country's modest, but steady economic growth.

Since 1990, Canadian, Mexican, Italian, Spanish, French and Dutch companies have invested nearly $2 billion in joint ventures with the Cuban government. They're overhauling the country's telephone system, building hotels and exploring for offshore oil.

Last year, the head of the American Farm Bureau said U.S. agricultural sales would jump from $500 million to $2 billion annually if the embargo were lifted. Three months later, Illinois Gov. George Ryan visited Cuba and discovered an "opportunity for a great market" for farmers in his state.

But instead of making deals, Mr. Ryan had to go home empty-handed -- thanks to a four-decade-old embargo that doesn't work.

When Congress passed a bill in 1992 that tightened the embargo in the wake of Cuba's loss of Soviet aid, New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli, the law's author, said the measure would "shorten the suffering of the Cuban people by isolating Castro and forcing him out."

It didn't.

When Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act -- a law that further tightened the embargo's noose and foolishly sought to penalize foreign companies that do business with Cuba -- Dan Burton proclaimed that the bill "is the last nail" in Mr. Castro's coffin.

It wasn't.

Instead of deposing him or scaring away foreign investors, the bill widened the moat that embargo advocates have built between U.S. businesses and a Cuban market that is larger than that of all but seven U.S. states. More important, the aging embargo has strengthened -- not weakened -- support for Mr. Castro.

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