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Mouse That Roared Has the Last Laugh

Robert Scheer is a Times contributing editor. E-mail: rscheer@aol.com

It has become a truism of modern history that when communism falls, prostitution thrives. Whether we are talking of the former republics of the Soviet empire or the surviving communist nations of China and Vietnam, hookers are the surest harbinger of a free society.

An ancillary sign of the dawning of freedom is a visit by the pope. So it is obvious that Cuba, which has booked a papal visit for next year and is also approaching pre-revolution levels of prostitution due to a booming tourist industry, is poised to join the free world.

Even Jesse Helms has admitted as much by giving his approval to the administration’s plan to permit American news organizations to set up shop in Havana. When those news crews loaded with fat wads of cash hit the beaches, the embargo that has strangled Cuba since 1960 will effectively end.

CNN has already obtained Castro’s approval, and while Helms is counting on stories of Cuba’s myriad problems given the on-air hours that CNN has to fill, there will undoubtedly be many in-depth reports featuring balmy beaches, wild nightclubs and the intricacies of cigar rolling.

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It won’t be long before cruise ships ply the 90 miles from Miami to Havana with the regularity of old and the heirs of Meyer Lansky return to reopen the old gambling casinos. Given the homophobic policies that have long marked the Castro regime, Helms himself might start vacationing there.

Once linked to Miami, Cuba could resume its historic role as a center of the drug trade. The U.S. has tried in vain to cast Castro as a drug lord, but Fidel, who is even more of a puritan than a Marxist, has rejected that role. Recently, drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey assured me that he has never seen any evidence of drugs coming out of Cuba, even when he headed up the Southern Command, which had the task of interdicting drugs.

Castro has also been a great disappointment for those who want to keep the Cold War going. As a military threat, Cuba has dropped to the level of Ecuador. “The Cuban air force is completely flat on its ass,” McCaffrey told me. “The whole Cuban armed forces have come to a grinding halt.”

Nor are they holding up their end on human rights violations. Cuba recently agreed on an exchange with Canada to bring judges and other experts in due process to the island. Most important, Castro has accepted the resurrection of the Catholic Church, which now represents the main threat to his power, and the coming visit of the pope portends a far greater risk to his dictatorship than four decades of CIA sabotage and assassination attempts.

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The rise of religious freedom in Cuba is particularly embarrassing for U.S. policymakers at a moment when their most favored friends in Beijing once again have chosen to imprison Catholics who represent a tiny percentage of the Chinese population and are no threat whatsoever. Then again, that also could be said of the crushing of the Tibetans, but the Chinese have assuaged our human rights concerns by their profound commitment to the free market. With sweatshops like that, who needs a bill of rights?

We have judged China by a kindlier standard than Cuba ever since Nixon embraced Mao at the height of our war against communism in Vietnam. Otherwise we might be more alarmed about Beijing’s development as a sophisticated military power. But much of the advanced technology is being purchased from Russia, and our policymakers regard such military sales as necessary to strengthening the pro-capitalist forces in Moscow. That both Russia and China are supplying arms to Iran is further proof that free market principles are sweeping the world. Even North Korea seems to be eliciting growing approval from the U.S. with what some experts detect as a decidedly free market twitch.

It’s just too difficult to keep the Cold War going when Cuba is the sole surviving communist threat. Still there are those Cuban American voters in Florida who can make life miserable for politicians who normalize relations with Castro. That’s why Clinton signed the Helms-Burton bill to punish foreign investors rushing into the island; it helped him carry Florida. However, the European community, Japan and Canada are furious over this interference in free trade. As a result, Clinton did a Clinton and has simply put off enforcement of Helms-Burton.

But with Cuba now dotted with fancy joint-venture hotels and our satellite surveillance picking up nothing more threatening than the excess of European sunbathers, it is all too reminiscent of that classic satire, “The Mouse That Roared.”

We are being laughed at, which could be the most threatening weapon of all.


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