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Keeping Cuba Down

* The rationale behind the Cuban embargo is gone.

By David L. Bosco

When President Clinton was considering who the new leader of the Democratic party ought to be, he no doubt had to contend with a whole slew of factions and interests within the party, each championing a candidate favorable to their interests. Perhaps surprisingly, one of the most powerful of those groups was the Cuban-American community.

There is only one reason the Cuban-American community cares about who the head of the Democratic party is. They have just one overriding political interest: the maintenance of the American economic embargo on Cuba and continued American hostility to the Castro regime.

Why? The Cuban-American community is made up largely of those who fled the country in the wake of the communist takeover. Their one goal ever since has been to return to a free Cuba, a Cuba without Castro.

Laudable as their desire to see their homeland free is, the means they have chosen to effect that change are ill-conceived. The continued isolation of Cuba is no longer in America's best interests. Nor is it in the interests of the Cubans who stayed behind.

Originally, the American embargo had a strategic purpose. When the Cubans were a Soviet proxy whose territory could hold Soviet missiles and whose troops served as Soviet cannon fodder in hotspots from Latin America to Africa, keeping the Cuban economy weak made some sense. With the Cold War rationale gone, and Soviet subsidies to Cuba gone with it, the embargo theory no longer holds water.

Those who support it argue that continued pressure is necessary to force change by the Castro regime. This is the classic argument behind most economic sanctions. The experience of the last few years, though, has prompted an overdue reconsideration of this theory. More often than not, these sanctions seem to decimate the population while doing little to those in power. It was the sight of starving Haitians still living under the gun of unrepentant (and quite well-off) dictators that sparked the Clinton administration to finally admit that sanctions weren't working. When sanctions do work (South Africa is most commonly cited), they work slowly, and it can be legitimately asked what level of human suffering is worth the political benefits.

An even more compelling argument runs along political lines. The embargo may actually be helping Castro remain in power. By keeping the population near the sustenance level, the embargo may very well be draining what political activism might really be there. How can adults who must worry about their children's next meal be expected to demonstrate on the streets? The history of revolutions (from the French to the Iranian) give strong support to the argument that political activism often follows a rise in income. And political activism--in the form of opposition to Castro--is what the Cuban-American community wants.

Nevertheless, the strong political pull of the Cuban-American community has kept the antiquated embargo as American policy. No administration has yet had the courage to say enough is enough. President Clinton, who needs every last vote, seems to have neither the leverage nor the inclination to challenge the policy.

So on it goes, with the U.S. complicit in hurting the Cuban people for at best uncertain gains. By ending the embargo, the U.S. could alleviate a humanitarian situation that has become progressively worse in recent years, and we may even help achieve what everyone wants: the end of Castro's reign.

David I. Bosco's column appears alternate Wednesdays.

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