U.S. Embargo A Time-Tested Loser

WEDNESDAY, JAN. 21, 1998

Over the past 20 years, Pope John Paul II has been the most influential political - yes, political - figure in the world. He arrives in Cuba today to spread the Gospel to a nation that’s been spiritually starved, but his effect, as usual, will transcend religion.

Look at the record. In 1979, eight months after becoming pope, he visited his native Poland, drew crowds of 2 million and helped establish the Solidarity movement. In 1983, he traveled to Nicaragua, criticized the liberation theology of its priests and helped end the Sandinista regime.

The pope - even more than Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher or Mikhail Gorbachev - was responsible for the near-bloodless revolution that routed communism and replaced it in Europe and Latin America with imperfect but largely humane and democratic capitalism.

The only holdout is Cuba, a country of 11 million, frozen in time (1959 or thereabouts), morally and economically bankrupt, ruled by an aging, preening dictator who can’t shut up.

What will Pope John Paul II, leader of the world’s 1 billion Catholics and an inspiration to the faithful of other religions (me included), say to Fidel Castro and his subjects? He’ll certainly try to establish a more firm foundation for the church in Cuba. And he’ll talk about human rights, which, the pope understands to mean not just political, but economic, freedom.

Since the fall of his Soviet benefactors, Castro, in desperation, has had to loosen some of the state’s control over how his people earn a living. In eight years, Cuba’s gross domestic product (not much to begin with) has dropped 25 percent. There is now a pinch of entrepreneurship in Cuba: private food markets, foreign ownership of businesses.

But not much, and no thanks to us. Our embargo, which limits travel and prohibits Americans from selling things to Cubans or buying things from them, has been in place for nearly 40 years - with absolutely no beneficial results.

Our embargo has not brought down Castro’s regime. Instead, it has reinforced it by providing a scapegoat at which he can rail. And, anyway, if Americans truly believe in economic freedom, how can we perpetuate a policy that not only flouts that principle but which hasn’t worked anyway?

Trade, in fact, is a human right. You should have the liberty to exchange your work, the products and services that you create, with anyone in the world - from the corner dry cleaner to the Balinese artist to the Havana cigar maker. The only exception is war, and we are not at war (or anything like it) with Cuba.

Some 35 years have passed since the missile crisis. In the rest of Latin America, with its 400 million Catholics, Castro can no longer subvert or agitate. He is a pathetic old man. What are Bill Clinton and Congress so afraid of?

The Cuban exiles of Miami? Oh, maybe. But, over the years, they have shed their insularity and paranoia. Their uncomprising leader, Jorge Mas Canosa, recently died without a forceful successor. And, more important, most exiles understand that they would be beneficiaries of a lifted embargo and a Cuba open to two-way trade.

Take a trip to Miami, as I did last week, and you’ll find one of the two or three most exciting cities in the United States - its buildings joyfully painted pink, ocher and turquoise, its port jammed with containers and cruise ships, its banks and restaurants bustling.

No, the politician who has the most to fear from a lifting of the embargo is Fidel Castro. “There is no surer way to undermine the Castro regime,” said the Economist this week, “than to flood his streets with American tourists, academics and businessmen, with their notions of liberty and enterprise.”

If we were to lift the embargo, not only would Castro be denied a scapegoat, but if he still tried to keep out U.S. investment (and films, soft drinks and computers), then he himself would at last have to shoulder the blame. It would be too heavy a burden. Like the Berlin Wall, he would fall of his own weight.

“In her social doctrine,” Pope John Paul II once said, “the church does not propose a concrete political or economic model, but indicates the way, presents principles.”

The way is clear. The last communist leader in the Western Hemisphere and - some would say, in the world - has overplayed a weak hand in allowing the pope to visit his country. Out of touch, Castro has made a serious political blunder.

In a six-hour speech that began Friday evening and stretched into the next day, he praised John Paul II and insisted the pope had much in common with Cuba’s leaders. “He’s done all his criticisms of communism,” said Castro. “Now, he’s criticizing capitalism.”

The truth is that the pope’s most pressing complaint about capitalism involves a country that professes to practice it but which enforces an embargo that mocks it. That country’s president could add to his legacy by standing up for principle and taking advantage of the pope’s visit to declare that he will end all sanctions immediately - no matter what the anachronistic old man in the beard and the fatigues does.

Bill Clinton, in short, should call Castro’s bluff. The result, before very long, will be a thriving, Castro-less Cuba, a diamond crescent glistening in the blue Caribbean Sea and another nation the pope helped make free.


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