December 17, 2006

MIAMI – Here in the world’s second largest Cuban city, the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban exile community is straining its collective ears to catch the last dying gasps of their islands hated `Maximo leader,’ Fidel Castro.

The death this week of Chile’s former dictator, Gen. Augosto Pinochet, leaves the gravely ailing Castro as Latin America’s last surviving Cold War dinosaur. The much demonized Pinochet left Chile with a democratic government and Latin America’s most vibrant economy. Castro, by contrast, will leave behind a dreary, threadbare totalitarian state that has become a land that time forgot.

Fidel Castro, who is hospitalized, handed over power to his aged brother, Raul. But as I reported on my last trip to Havana, there will probably be no major political changes in Cuba until Fidel leaves the scene. He is Cuba’s national father figure, who, in spite of many mistakes and severe repression, is still regarded with deep affection and pride by many of his people.

Some of Cuba’s economic woes have been a direct result of America’s half-century of severe sanctions, which took away Cuba’s natural export market, seriously damaged its once thriving tourism industry, and denied it spare parts and vital machinery. But much of the island’s poverty and dilapidation is due to the ruinous Marxist economic and social policies promoted by Castro and Cuba’s all-powerful Communist Party. Marxism failed as badly in Cuba as it did everywhere else. To keep it in place, the Castro regime relied on a pervasive secret police and an army of informers in every building and factory.

As much as many may admire Fidel as a macho leader who stood up to the Yankee `gringos’ after a century of bullying and exploitation, and who brought them high standards of medicine and education, we should also recall that Castro had a darker side. Recently-opened KGB files and statements by former high Soviet officials have revealed that during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Castro begged Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev to launch nuclear-armed missiles against the United States. The Kremlin wisely refused Castro’s crazy request.

KGB archives also document extensive Soviet intelligence links with and support for Chile’s late Marxist president, Salvador Allende, who was overthrown by Gen. Pinochet. The Soviets planned to turn Marxist Chile into a second Cuba.

Cuba may be a rusty Marxist relic, but it’s important to recall that it has always been the most advanced, sophisticated and cultured nation in the West Indies. Havana is older than New York City. I still vividly recall glittering pre-Castro Havana, and sitting at its famed `Floridita Bar’ with my parents and Ernest Hemingway, who inscribed a book to me, `To Eric, the painter, Havana, 1952.’ I liked drawing in those days.

In recent weeks, Raul Castro has offered to open talks with Washington, which has kept Cuba under a punishing embargo since the 1950’s. Washington should seize this opportunity to end its utterly daft sanctions regime that has bankrupted Cuba, and move to normalize relations. Raul Castro should immediately begin releasing all of Cuba’s political prisoners and cease arresting citizens who call for democracy and free speech.

Engagement with Cuba is urgent. Fidel’s death may set off internal power struggles in Cuba’s security forces and military or ignite social turmoil. A small army of Miami Cubans is ready to descend on their former homeland, among them numerous wealthy businessmen who see themselves as Cuba’s next leader – not necessarily democratic ones.

Cuba’s long-suffering people deserve to escape poverty and totalitarian rule. But they also need to retain the dignity and social advances they achieved under Castro’s regime – his sole accomplishment in half a century. It would be a serious mistake for Washington to treat post-Castro Cuba like just another banana republic. Or for the US to try to brusquely impose its dictates on prickly Cubans. Diplomatic finesse and tact are called for.

Unfortunately, the Bush-Cheney Administration has so far rebuffed Raul Castro’s overtures. Miami’s large, noisy Cuban community votes Republican and is dead set against political engagement with Cuba until the Castros are gone. There even seems to be a US law on the books to this effect.

Just as Ronald Reagan famously called for the hated Berlin Wall to be torn down, it’s now time for another ugly Cold War relic, the US embargo of Cuba, to be scrapped.

This post is in: Cuba

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