Headstrong and wrong

May 21, 2002

TO UNDERSTAND President Bush's unwavering allegiance to the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, Americans need only know his dinner plans last night.

After giving anti-Havana speeches in Washington and Miami yesterday, Mr. Bush was to attend a private dinner at the Miami home of a prominent Cuban-American developer. A dinner invitation could be got for a reported $25,000 donation to the Florida Republican Party, money likely to help Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in his re-election bid.

The power of the Cuban-American vote in South Florida - a deciding factor in the president's Florida victory in the contested 2000 election - has become a primary consideration in formulating U.S. foreign policy in Cuba. And Mr. Bush's platform reflects that.

In a major policy address yesterday at the White House, the president offered nothing to crack the 40-year freeze in relations between the United States and the island nation. On the contrary, he issued ultimatums to the Cuban government that will effectively maintain the status quo, a failed policy that relies on an outdated trade embargo and harsh travel restrictions. Before he would lift the trade embargo, Mr. Bush said, Cuba would have to hold free elections with independent monitors, release political prisoners, permit the free assembly of opposition parties and cease discriminatory policies against workers.

Those demands would require either the political re-education of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro - imagine that! - or his fall from power. Both unlikely scenarios, given Mr. Castro's political persona and the impoverished state of the Cuban people. Mr. Bush and his anti-Castro supporters insist on democratic reforms in Cuba as though rhetoric alone will promote change there.

In a gesture to the Cuban people, Mr. Bush did announce the resumption of mail between the United States and Cuba. He also proposed scholarships for Cuban students and professionals to study in the United States, financial aid for nongovernmental groups interested in Cuba, and the easing of restrictions on American groups working there.

But these initiatives can't possibly have the impact that a bold, far-reaching policy change would have had on the political scene in Cuba.

Mr. Bush's status-quo policy, whether communicated in Spanish or English, will likely buy the president and his brother the political capital they need in Florida this election year. But it remains an ultimately bankrupt policy, and the hopes of the Cuban people are the poorer for it.

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