End the Coldness, Start the Dialogue : Castro knows it's over--so Washington should get ready for the big change

The signals from Havana keep on coming, but no one in Washington seems to even notice them.

In February, Fidel Castro announced he would step down if his departure would eliminate the trade embargo. In June, he reiterated his willingness to negotiate payment for U.S. property confiscated early in the revolution. In between, he flattered President Clinton, calling him a man of peace. Last but not least, Carlos Lage, Cuba's economic reform guru, recently announced that soon it will be legal for Cubans to possess dollars.

Unmoved, Washington has remained silent after every single overture from the aging caudillo. President Clinton even supported the bill by Rep. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey that tightens the screws on Cuba's economy. Alas, the economic plight of the 10.5 million Cubans on the island grows more desperate by the minute; political control over the population remains tight and police repression of citizens is on the rise.

For U.S. hard-liners, this is just more proof of Castro's desperation. By tightening the screws even more, they think, Castro will either eventually resign and go to live in Spain, or die in Havana, thus allowing for a possible changing of the guard. Maybe; but a more aggressive, wiser policy would have Washington involved on the ground floor of the coming change, before larger economic and political catastrophes take place on the island. It is in America's interest to lessen the potential for more of the internal repression that has followed demonstrations of civil unrest in Cuba. It is in this nation's best interest to preempt the flight of more refugees to U.S. shores.

Now is the time to help negotiate a peaceful transition of power in Cuba--and to ensure reconciliation within the Cuban communities here in the States and in Cuba. Forget the snail-paced policies that the so-called experts recommend and introduce a bold initiative to spur real dialogue between Washington and Havana. The goal of that dialogue: to return Cuba to democracy without bloodshed. Earlier this month, 23 Latin American heads of state assembled in Brazil and called for an end to the Cuban embargo. In a commendable spirit of openness, they even invited representatives of a moderate group of Cuban exiles to participate unofficially in the talks. That is leadership. Washington should now join them and help start a meaningful discussion whose goal is to end an anachronism begun 40 years ago today.

Prolonging Castro's dictatorship only inflicts more suffering on the Cubans. It is inhumane to punish them more. It makes no sense to do nothing when the adversary has now, in so many ways, cried uncle.

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