Playing the terror card

May 10, 2002

THE AXIS OF EVIL has been expanded by a factor of one wily Cuban dictator.

That's the latest on terrorism from the Bush administration. In an address this week to the Heritage Foundation, John R. Bolton, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, accused Cuba of sharing its biotechnology capabilities with "rogue" states for possibly nefarious uses. He offered nothing substantive to support his contention and neither did the State Department.

How convenient that the Bush administration sounds the terrorism alarm the week before former President Jimmy Carter travels to Havana on a humanitarian mission.

It certainly fits the Bush stance on Cuba and Fidel Castro: demonize and isolate.

It's a tired, old political line that more Americans are rejecting. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Cuba without its longtime financial and political patron; it's time that the United States fill that vacuum.

But Mr. Bush and his supporters remain captives of the anti-Castro segment of the Cuban-American community.

They are committed to the 42-year-old trade embargo against Cuba despite recent attempts by business interests to ease the sanctions. About 20 American companies, including Maryland's Perdue Farms, have contracted to sell about $90 million in agricultural products to Cuba under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act.

Those interests can't compete with the anti-Castro vote in Florida, especially in an election year when the president's brother is running for a second term as governor.

The fact that the trade embargo hasn't loosened Mr. Castro's grip on the country, improved the human rights climate in Cuba or helped democratic reforms doesn't seem to matter.

But more and more voices are seeking a change in U.S.-Cuban relations. A new congressional caucus, headed by Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, seeks to lift the travel ban and ease trade restrictions. A poll last fall found that 85 percent of Americans support unrestricted sales of food and medicine to Cuba. And 45 percent of Cuban-Americans would like to see improved relations with Cuba.

The policy, nevertheless, has been to stand firm on trade sanctions until democratic reforms are instituted in Cuba. That's tantamount to saying until Mr. Castro departs this earth.

Mr. Bush has said he wants to encourage pro-democracy forces in Cuba. But U.S. policy has yet to demonstrate that.

A recent giveaway of more than 1,000 short-wave radios on the island seems little more than a ham-handed public relations gimmick. The idea was to enable Cubans in rural parts of the island to tune in to the U.S.-funded anti-Castro station, Radio Marti.

Meanwhile, a petition drive has collected the required 10,000 signatures to compel the Cuban parliament to call for a referendum on political reforms. Mr. Castro is likely to sabotage this gutsy move by dissidents. But even if he doesn't, Mr. Bush's policies still will hobble this nation's efforts to encourage that kind of legitimate dissent - the kind of democratic machinations that actually have the best chance of leading to a free Cuba.

What a wasted opportunity.

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