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Jewish World Review April 15, 2002 / 4 Iyar 5762

Philip Terzian

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Travels with Jimmy | Far be it from me to begrudge Jimmy Carter a trip to Cuba. It was his policies toward Cuba as president -- easing the restrictions on travel, establishing low-level diplomatic missions -- that enabled me to visit the Pearl of the Antilles for the first time, some quarter-century ago.

It is difficult to discern the attitude of the Bush administration toward this excursion. We may be confident that the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Otto Reich, is not happy. Mr. Reich, a Cuban-American with strong ties to the exile community in Miami, supports the diplomatic isolation of the Castro regime and the U.S. embargo. But the administration, taken as a whole, might think otherwise.

It is probable that the President would prefer that his distinguished predecessor stayed home, but mostly for reasons having little to do with diplomacy. The Carter trip is a minor coup for Fidel Castro, and one more distraction on an otherwise busy White House schedule. For that matter, the visit of an ex-U.S. president to Cuba, with official blessing, cannot help Jeb Bush's campaign for re-election as governor of Florida. But none of these reasons would compel George W. Bush to prevent Jimmy Carter from flying to Havana.

It has been said that Jimmy Carter is the first American president, in or out of office, to visit Cuba since the 1959 revolution which brought Castro to power. But this interesting statistic should not be exaggerated. No American president has visited Cuba in the past 43 years for two good reasons: The unremitting hostility of the regime to the United States government, and the relative unimportance of Cuba in the larger picture.

Cuban officials, even high-ranking ones who should know better, seem to believe that every American president since John F. Kennedy has been obsessed with the Castro regime. Not necessarily so. Kennedy and his brother Robert were determined to assassinate Fidel Castro in the early 1960s -- payback for those Soviet offensive nuclear missiles -- and Ronald Reagan worried about Cuba's status as patron to communist insurgencies in Latin America. But for the most part, presidents have had more important things to worry about than a boil in their nation's hindquarters.

In that sense, it is entirely possible that George W. Bush welcomes the Carter mission. If anyone should be devoid of illusions about Fidel Castro, it is Jimmy Carter. Castro has said that Carter was the "friendliest" toward Cuba of the 10 presidents in office since 1959, and he may well be right. As I said, Carter eased travel and commercial restrictions in 1977, exchanged interest sections with the foreign ministry, and made it clear he wished to "normalize" relations with Cuba as he had with the People's Republic of China. But Carter's instincts were rewarded in Castro's particular way: By expelling 125,000 of Cuba's violent prisoners and mental patients in 1980 -- the so-called Mariel Boatlift -- Fidel Castro effectively undermined the Carter presidency in the midst of the Iran hostage crisis.

So if Carter is true to his principles, he will take the occasion not to praise Fidel Castro as "the most honest, courageous politician I have ever met" -- in the words of another visitor, Jesse Jackson -- but deliver a message to the old tyrant from an ostensible friend: That the appalling condition of human rights in Cuba is unacceptable, that it is time to release political prisoners, lift repression, and give the suffering Cuban people some measure of personal and economic freedom.

In turn, when Jimmy Carter returns from Havana, he might convey an uncomfortable truth to President Bush: Kennedy's embargo, now 40 years old, has been a disaster. Not only has it failed to force Castro from office, it has helped keep him in power by providing one cudgel with which to beat Uncle Sam. It is true that the embargo has required Castro to scramble for dollars, but because no other country observes it, the regime trades with other currencies while the people of Cuba suffer genuine deprivation. We have full diplomatic and trade relations with Red China, but not our impoverished neighbor. Free Americans are forbidden to travel to Cuba, and face criminal sanctions if they spend a dollar in Havana or sneak a cigar through customs, and for what? To mollify the Cuban exile community in Miami.

The irony, of course, is that the one exception to this irrational rule is extended to -- the Cuban exile community in Miami, which sends millions of dollars every year to relatives on the island. The exiles know that Fidel Castro is a cruel dictator who has kept his countrymen in bondage, murdered thousands of Cubans, and done untold damage to a vital, sophisticated and well-educated society. But they also know that the people of Cuba are his innocent victims, that someday the 75-year-old Castro will be gone, and the time to start building a democratic Cuba is now.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal