The release of 69 Cuban political prisoners and about 40 members of their families serves, among other things, as a reminder of how much work remains to be done to create a constructive policy in the United States regarding Cuba.
There can only be relief and celebration that these political prisoners are at last free. Not all necessarily are heroes, for many were part of the Batista regime whose repression created the climate that brought Fidel Castro to power. Some had been imprisoned almost from the day Castro took power on Jan. 1, 1959--symbols of the new repression that he found necessary to maintain his power.
But they are free largely because of the initiative of the U.S. Catholic Conference, not the U.S. government. The Reagan Administration continues to muddle and meander--seemingly conciliatory one day, then hostile and punitive the next. The result has been to give Cuba an importance that it does not deserve and to miss opportunities to begin the long process of reestablishing a constructive relationship.
The basic goal of U.S. policy, to isolate Cuba, has failed. Cuba now has diplomatic relations with most of the important nations of the hemisphere. One exception is the military dictatorship in Chile. The Latin nations have understood the importance of restoring normal relations as Cuba has abandoned its aggressive policy of exporting its revolution to other Latin nations.
Much of the anger in Washington is generated by Cuba's firm commitment of friendship and support to the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Reagan Administration sees this as an obstacle to its crusade to overthrow the Sandinistas and install whatever brand of government the contras may contrive. What Washington fails to grasp is that it is alone among the free nations of the hemisphere in seeking the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government, in mounting a devastating war against the Nicaraguan people.
Efforts to restore the 1984 immigration agreement failed again in July. Under the plan, Cuba would repatriate about 2,700 criminals and mentally ill persons who came in the Mariel flight of 1980 and the United States would undertake to accept about 20,000 Cuban immigrants each year. It is a good plan. It broke down almost as soon as it commenced, however, when the United States launched its Radio Marti broadcasts to Cuba and Havana understandably reacted. The new effort to restore the agreement has again foundered because the United States was unprepared to offer timely compensatory radio time to the Cubans.
Jorge I. Dominguez of Harvard, writing in the fall issue of Foreign Affairs, notes that "Cuba is at a turning point." One way Castro wants to turn is to improved relations with the United States. It makes sense for both nations. The efforts to isolate Cuba, as in the new sanctions announced by President Reagan in August, serve only to harden the ideological rhetoric and posturing of Castro and to raise sympathy for him in the rest of the hemisphere. Castro seems firmly in command of his nation. As Dominguez points out, seven U.S. Presidents have failed to dislodge him. But if there is ever to be change in Cuba, it will come as Cuba is drawn back into full relations with the rest of the world--the United States included.