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Cuba Crisis: Its Roots Travel Many Troubled Decades : Clinton confronts a situation exacerbated by Washington’s earlier policies

Washington’s difficulties with Cuba go back a long way, well before even Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. Some reach back as far as the Spanish-American War; others lie in the 1950s, the days of the corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista, when perhaps the most noteworthy American investments in Cuba involved criminal enterprises. But the current troubles, with waves of Cuban refugees setting sail for the United States as Castro’s decrepit regime slowly crumbles, have been more exacerbated than assuaged by key U.S. foreign policy decisions these last few years.

CASTRO’S FAILED REVOLUTION: A hothouse of poverty and exploitation, Cuba was ripe for revolution when Castro’s committed band of communist revolutionaries methodically chopped their way down from the mountains and seized power in Havana. Too bad Castro did not have the right prescription for what ailed Cuba. For over the years--despite some success in health care services and education--his communist regime proved every bit as rancid and perhaps even as corrupt as its venal capitalistic predecessor. Today Cuba stands on the precipice of unrelieved poverty--and perhaps, once the 68-year-old Castro himself is gone, of civil war too.

No revisionist apologies for Castro, please. He had his chance and he blew it. He got oodles of rubles from his patrons in Moscow, but the money went almost nowhere but down some systemic black hole. Cubans had their independence from the Yanquis--and it’s understandable that they should want it and only right that they should have it. But they paid a stupefying price for it--bondage to an economic system that doesn’t appear to work anywhere, and an alliance to a Soviet empire that is no longer around when they most need it.

THE BEST AMERICAN POLICY: In Washington there is little crowing now over Cuba’s predicament, nor should there be. From the bankrupt decision under Dwight D. Eisenhower to support Batista unreservedly through the misconceived Bay of Pigs fiasco under John F. Kennedy, U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a bipartisan study in lack of understanding and creativity. Not to exculpate the Clinton Administration from all responsibility for the current situation, of course, but the President did in fact inherit one great mess.

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The question now is how to make the best of it. Our suggestion, for starters, is that the Administration avoid dramatic lurches of any nature--whether feral notions of invasion or fist-around-the-windpipe blockade; the same for fuzzy thoughts about cozying up to the maximum leader to try to somehow democratize his discredited regime. Instead, what’s needed is a careful policy that looks to America’s long-range interests.

Those interests certainly include, as a starting point, a stable nation only 90 miles from Key West, Fla. We should neither seek to impose our own government on Cuba, even if that were possible, nor to hasten Castro’s downfall with ham-handed intervention; resultant civil war and societal breakdown might leave us with an even worse refugee calamity.

Prudent and persistent U.S. policy--along the lines now laid down by the Administration--would continue to discourage illegal refugee migration, and resumption of the unofficial but regular dialogue with Castro that past Presidents including Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter have had would be helpful. That dialogue, among other things, needs to accommodate the legitimate interests of the Cuban American community in south Florida. Those interests include the transfer, now disrupted, of private cash and other materiel from Miami to relatives and friends still in Castro’s island prison. This assistance, while not substantial enough to keep Castro afloat, does ease the suffering of many Cuban families. It also reduces the desperate drive to emigrate.

Americans have the tendency, when confronted with a crisis, to believe that for every problem there is a solution. But long-festering problems are rarely solved quickly. It would be a mistake akin to those Eisenhower and Kennedy made to presume that 35 years of problems with Havana can be solved overnight. What is called for now, above all, is patience.

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Closing the Door U.S. Coast Guard has been intercepting Cubans tryingto flee to Florida.


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