A challenge in Havana

May 16, 2002

JIMMY CARTER made an awfully good point when he addressed the Cuban people Tuesday night on television. The strength of a democracy, he said, is that its citizens can work on correcting its mistakes. As an example, he pointed out that U.S. election laws are already being reformed so as to avoid a repeat of the 2000 debacle in Florida.

Take that, Bush brothers.

The United States is now entering a new election season, one that sees Jeb Bush running for another term as governor of Florida, and it's fair to point out that U.S. policy toward Cuba is primarily focused on Cubans who live about 90 miles this side of Havana. Mr. Carter went to the communist island to try to stir up better relations with the neighbors, and the White House of George W. Bush couldn't wait to repudiate the whole idea.

This is not the place to dwell on the hypocrisy of an administration that demonizes the regime of Fidel Castro but happily embraces a one-time Communist satrap like Islam Karimov, the jefe of the free and democratic republic of Uzbekistan, where thousands of political dissidents - those lucky enough not to have been murdered by the police - are languishing in prison.

Rather, it is more to the point to consider what Mr. Carter himself had to say.

The United States needs to drop the economic embargo, he declared, and in turn Cuba needs to open up politically. Because the United States is by far the larger and more powerful country, Washinton should go first. Americans don't have that much to lose by opening up to Cuba, and in fact agribusiness sees a tempting little market there.

And as for Cuba, Mr. Carter continued, a golden opportunity has arisen to show the world what it is made of. A petition drive, called the Varela Project, has presented 11,000 signatures to the National Assembly, calling for a referendum on a proposal to guarantee freedom of speech and assembly.

Until Tuesday evening, the Cuban press had never mentioned the Varela Project. But now the whole nation knows. In the gentlest and most gracious manner possible, Mr. Carter - given the opportunity by Mr. Castro to appear live on Cuban television - laid down a challenge to his host.

It could be argued that with those few words Mr. Carter wielded a far more effective tool against the Castro regime than all the hostility and economic sanctions that Washington has dished out over 40 years.

What will happen now? Varela could turn into a sort of salsa version of Poland's Solidarity, and the floodgates could open. Or Mr. Castro could try to quash it - which seems most likely - and he might succeed. Or he might manage to co-opt it somehow. Or it could turn into a nightmare in which the Bush administration clumsily tries to help the movement and it ends up discredited in the eyes of ordinary Cubans.

That, more than anything, would set back the chances for reform in Havana. Precisely because communism is so repugnant, the best Cuban policy the White House could follow would be a hands-off policy. But that may be expecting too much of a great democracy held hostage by the electoral math of a single state.

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