THE NATION : When Talking About Castro, Congress Always Sees Red

Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a presidential fellow at the World Policy Institute of the New School. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin) and is now working on a book about U.S. foreign policy

There is only one man alive who can make Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole vote against free trade and make Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) speak Spanish on the Senate floor.

That man is Fidel Castro, and he was at it again last week, working his mysterious occult power to cloud the minds of U.S. politicians and turn the United States into a global laughingstock.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), one of a handful of politicians apparently immune to Castro's hypnotic powers, lamented that, yet again, the United States was turning Castro into a larger-than-life world figure.

He was right. As Castro prepared for his speech at the United Nations this week, the Senate was doing everything its misguided conservative members could think of to make him look like a hero.

That takes work. Castro may be the last sincere Communist left on the face of the earth. The world has moved past him; eager revolutionaries from Latin American countries no longer look to Havana to learn how it's done. Young Cubans study English and flock to private markets to learn how capitalism works; other countries no longer talk about emulating Cuba's development strategy.

But Castro won't be a marginal figure at the 50th anniversary celebrations at the United Nations. Thanks to ill-judged efforts by U.S. conservatives, Castro will have the world's attention when he speaks. And even America's closest foreign allies will agree when he denounces the U.S. Congress for violations of human rights and international law.

There is nothing new about Castro's ability to bring out self-defeating behavior in the United States. The CIA has tried to overthrow Castro by force, to smuggle terrorists into Cuba, assassinate Castro and make his beard fall out.

We've tried to bomb him out, shoot him out, freeze him out through diplomatic isolation and starve him out through an economic embargo. Nine U.S. Presidents have tried to get rid of Castro.

Nothing works and the United States has become a sort of global Elmer Fudd, perpetually outwitted by Castro, the Caribbean Bugs Bunny.

Meanwhile, for 36 years, exiled Cubans in Miami and their U.S. friends and hired lobbyists have confidently predicted Castro's demise. "The Cuban people hate him," they told President John F. Kennedy. "Send in a few guerrillas and Castro will collapse."

Result: the Bay of Pigs, the biggest humiliation for the United States between the Battle of Bull Run and the fall of Saigon. David 1, Goliath zip. Castro's popularity soared in Cuba and the world.

"Cut him off economically," the anti-Castro zealots then said. "If Cuba loses its economic relations with the United States, the regime will collapse."

It didn't work. The Soviet Union was happy to send aid and supplies. In return, of course, Castro had to align his policy more closely with Moscow--the opposite of what the United States wanted.

Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and the anti-Castro zealots were convinced that now Castro would surely fail. Florida buzzed with predictions of Castro's imminent collapse; with communism falling apart in Eastern Europe, how could it survive a few miles from Miami?

Six years after the Berlin Wall came down, the Castro regime is firmly in control. Thanks to increasing foreign investment and tourism from Canada and Europe, the Cuban economy has actually begun to grow. In the last year, the Cuban peso has doubled in value against the dollar, food has become more plentiful and the worst of the crisis appears to have passed.

Moreover, the U.S. embargo against Cuba has become an international human-rights issue. Our closest allies vote to condemn the embargo in the United Nations. The Pope condemns it. So do human-rights groups and dissidents in Cuba.

Now the hard-core anti-Castro forces have another argument: age. Castro, they point out, is aging. He can't live forever.

True enough, but then Castro is three years younger than Dole. On a good day in Washington, you can hear the same people claim that Castro has one foot in the grave, while Dole can survive the rigors of a presidential campaign and go on to serve four years in the White House, starting in 1997.

Led by Helms and Dole, the Senate's anti-Castro club this week tried to force through a new plan to get rid of him, once and for all. It was like watching someone burning down his house to kill a termite. The anti-Castro measures proposed in the Helms-Burton bill would clog U.S. courts for years, create a crisis with Russia and guarantee huge problems with all our major trading partners. The only thing it won't do is get rid of Castro.

This bill whooped through the House of Representatives before a Senate filibuster slowed it down. In its original form, Helms-Burton would have ripped up the rules of the World Trade Organization and banned some of Europe's most prominent investors from entering the United States. It would have united every major trading power in Europe and Asia against us and undermined the legal position of U.S. investors around the world.

In the closing moments of the Senate's debate, Dole explained the bill's goal: Senate conservatives want to force other countries to join the U.S. boycott of Cuba whether they want to or not and whether this is legal or not. Admitting that the current embargo has failed, the anti-Castro lobby wants to prevent Castro, as Dole put it, from replacing Soviet subsidies with investments from Western Europe.

This is, to put it mildly, a strange policy. It is no longer Soviet influence that we want to contain in Cuba, but the influence of countries such as Canada, Israel, Britain and France. The United States is no longer trying to promote the creation of a market economy in Cuba. We are actively trying to prevent it. And Congress is willing to pick a fight with all our major trading partners to do it.

This, of course, is madness. But so was the Bay of Pigs.

Meanwhile, on the floor of the Senate, Helms--a supporter of making English the official language--referred to Helms-Burton as the "Libertad Act." It seems Spanish is only a menace when Mexicans speak it; when spoken by rich, campaign contribution-making Cuban exiles, conservative politicians find Spanish a treat.

For Helms, this is just business-as-usual; he usually plays to the peanut gallery of the radical right. But Dole may come to regret this affair.

U.S. business is increasingly annoyed as foreign competitors snap up the best opportunities in Cuba. Businesses that trade with China and Vietnam don't see why they should be frozen out of a market that, by rights, they should dominate.

Whenever Dole panders to the radical right, he undermines his support among GOP centrists and independents. The American people don't want to be governed by hysterical ideologues; unfortunately, Dole's performance on the Senate floor last week sent the wrong message.*

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