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You Thought the Cold War Was Dead? : We’re busy dealing with China, Vietnam, even North Korea, but Cuba? Never! Why is that?

<i> Robert Scheer is a former Times national correspondent. </i>

Fidel Castro should start futzing around with the rods in his nuclear power plant at Cienfuegos, or hint that he’s bought some of the plutonium that’s being smuggled out of Russia. Anything to make it look like he’s building a bomb. That way the Clinton Administration, following the example of its policy toward North Korea, would feel required to lift the economic embargo that has strangled Cuba for 33 years. Nothing else seems to work to get this Administration to re-evaluate a policy of isolating Cuba that made little sense when the Cold War was on and is simply bizarre in its aftermath.

How in the world can the Clinton Administration justify diplomatic recognition and trade with the communist nations of China, Vietnam and now North Korea while maintaining the trade embargo with Cuba because it’s a communist country? Is it that the Asian reds are no longer reds, or that they have a better human-rights record, or pose less of a potential military threat?

To argue any of that would be absurd. North Korea is suddenly presented with diplomatic exchange, trade and billions in nuclear technology without even being requested to make the slightest alterations in what remains one of the world’s most tightly repressive and bellicose regimes.

The opening to China, and more recently to Vietnam, was justified by reference to those countries being open to foreign investment. The U.S. embargo makes such investments on the part of American corporations, and their foreign subsidiaries, in Cuba illegal. Despite severe U.S. pressure, 112 joint ventures worth $500 million were put into place in the past three years by British, Italian, French and Spanish companies. U.S. Cuba policy is irrational, yet rarely is Clinton challenged by reporters on the obvious contradiction of continuing the Cold War against Cuba. We blockaded Cuba three decades ago because that small island was judged an outpost of Soviet power. Has Clinton not noticed that the Soviet Union no longer exists?

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The sad truth is that Cubans are being denied the benefits of trade afforded the Chinese and Vietnamese because of a hard-line emigre claque in Miami. There is ample evidence that they no longer speak for many Cubans eager to aid relatives on the island, but they are still terrific at intimidation.

One who is clearly intimidated is Bill Clinton. In the 1992 election, he supported the tightening of the trade embargo which George Bush, like Ronald Reagan previously, had opposed. Thanks to Clinton and the Democratic Congress, the embargo was tightened in brazen denial of the changed world reality. This action was condemned by an 88-4 vote in the United Nations. It was a stupidly cruel move that hurt ordinary Cubans while saving Castro the challenges of a more open society.

As Roger Fontaine, former national security aide in the Reagan Administration, wrote:

“The 1992 law is a policy of impoverishing Cubans at the behest of the most militant conservative groups in the emigre community. It is polarizing Cuba--driving many anti-Castro Cubans back into Mr. Castro’s camp . . . and enhancing his reputation as a fearless fighter of Yankee capitalism.”

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But let’s say the policy works and we succeed in ratcheting up the misery of ordinary Cubans already suffering from the abrupt withdrawal of Soviet subsidies. Is upheaval and disarray in Cuba really in our national interest? Have we no memory of the Mariel boat lift? Are we really prepared to take in millions of more Cuban refugees when we currently imprison Haitian refugees at our Cuban base in Guantanamo?

We continue to view Castro as nothing more than an outlaw while blindly ignoring our nation’s past crimes in his region, including numerous documented efforts to sabotage the Cuban economy and to assassinate Fidel.

His rule has been complex, filled with major achievements as in education and health and profound failure in civil liberty. There is no need to whitewash Castro any more than to continue demonizing him. But surely, if we can get along with the very people whom we fought in Vietnam and Korea, we can heal the wounds left over from the minor skirmish of the Bay of Pigs.

If Clinton fails this test of leadership and allows the situation to deteriorate, the cost in the suffering attendant to internecine warfare in Cuba will make the upheaval of the Mariel boat lift, and the more recent Haitian exodus, seem like a Caribbean cruise.

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