Tuesday, May 13, 2008

'Regime change' falls to Cubans


Published Saturday, May 10, 2008
Herald-Tribune, Sarasota, Florida

Florida's junior U.S. Senator Mel Martinez a few days ago reiterated his opposition to any relaxation of the U.S. trade and travel embargo against Cuba.

In a statement advocating "regime change" as the object of our policy toward Cuba, he said, "The debate about Cuba should not be about the embargo. It's not a policy in and of itself. A change in the government is the ultimate goal."

In all humility, I would like to submit that the senator is wrong. Cuba belongs to Cubans, and it is up to them to keep or change their government.

I would hope we have learned at great cost in blood and treasure that it is folly to make "regime change" the central theme of our policy toward any nation which is not a threat to our security.

Yes, we should pay close attention to any country lying 90 miles from our shores.

Yes, there was a time, some four decades ago, when Communist Cuba was allowing the Communist Soviet Union to use it as a base for nuclear weapons.

That was at the height of the Cold War, which could easily become a Hot War. Those weapons were a direct and immediate threat to us, and it was absolutely incumbent on our government to declare our intentions to use whatever measures might be necessary to get them removed.

Fortunately, once our intentions were known, a swift diplomatic maneuver led to a promise to remove the missiles, and they were indeed dismantled and shipped out.

A similar threat today would call for a similar response. But the situation is vastly different. The USSR has dissolved into several different nations. By far the largest, Russia, is still communist, still not what you would call friendly, but much diminished in expansionist zeal and in its isolation from the rest of the industrial world.

We do not and should not fully trust its intentions, but we are on speaking terms and willing to do business with them.

Cuba is still communist, still a dictatorship, but the dictator is now Raul, not Fidel, Castro. Whether Raul will be an improvement over his brother either in the treatment of the people of Cuba or his feelings about the United States we do not yet know.

But, clearly, Cuba is not a military threat to the United States. And, clearly, our decades-long embargo is a failed policy whose most notable result has been bringing hundreds of thousands of refugees to South Florida.

Like Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Cuba's Fidel Castro is not a good and kind human being. Like Hussein, Castro held on to power by arresting, jailing, killing members of the opposition. He persecuted the Catholic Church, confiscated private property, wrecked the economy and obliterated human rights.

One of the most effective ploys used by Fidel was to justify his inhumane tactics as necessary to protect Cuba from the rampant imperialism of the United States.

It is not very smart for us to leave that same tactic available to Raul Castro or any other Cuban leader. We should make it clear that we recognize that any changes in Cuba should be made only by the Cuban people. We should disavow any desire to use an embargo or any other kind of clout to install a new government in Cuba.

Whether Sen. Martinez can be comfortable with such a policy is open to doubt. He left Cuba when he was 15 years old and came to this country. His parents followed later. It is easy to understand how he would like to use American pressure to return Cuba to the pre-Castro days of his youth.

That does not make it the right thing to do. And enough of the million Cuban-Americans in Florida have come around to that point of view to raise a question if it is even the politically necessary thing to do.

A recent survey by the Institute for Public Opinion Research and the Cuban Research Institute of Florida International University found that 65 percent of Cuban-Americans would support U.S. dialogue with the Cuban government. More than half of Cuban-Americans support the embargo, but almost three fourths of them think it has not worked well.

Those numbers indicate there is among Cuban-Americans a large enough difference of opinion to make it possible for candidates for national or state office to win in Florida without endorsing regime change in Cuba or continuing the futile embargo.

And I consider that good news -- of which there is not a lot going around these days.

Waldo Proffitt is the former editor of the Herald-Tribune. E-mail:wproffitt@comcast.net

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