SO FIDEL CASTRO wants to come back. Now aged 69, an anachronism who drives many Americans to anachronistic fits of militant anti-communism, the Cuban dictator is due for his third appearance at the United Nations -- provided he gets a visa. The first time, in 1960, was an occasion for fiery Cold War oratory. The revolutionary, then aged 34 and in full flush from his triumphant New Year's Day march into Havana, still thought he was the future and he thought it worked.
The world now knows political oppression and a command economy do not work. Nikita Khrushchev vowed to "bury" Western capitalism. Instead, he is in his grave along with the mystique of Marxism-Leninism. But graying, charismatic Fidel Castro clings to his dream, giving way even more reluctantly than China and Vietnam to the logic of a market economy.
In the U.N. General Assembly he will touch chords of Third World loyalty, not least from diplomats who resent but need Western largess. He will inveigh -- again -- against a U.S. government that through eight presidencies has tried to overthrow him. But he will also be a figure of failure, ever willing to inflict material shortages and intellectual stagnation on his people so he might pursue his sociological experiments. Some have worked, such as full literacy and universal health care, but it is all part of a descent to the lowest common denominator. No Cuban boats ride a rising tide.
If he gets the visa rightly due visiting heads of state, will this appearance be a valedictory for Fidelismo? Objective criteria suggest as much. His regime is isolated in the hemisphere. Its economy is bankrupt. Castro opens casinos once deplored as the detritus of the Batista era. Anything for Western currency.
Washington keeps picking at the Cuba scab. Congress is about to pass a bill that seeks to deny foreign capital to Havana by imposing a patently illegal secondary boycott against other countries -- Canada especially -- that do business with Cuba. President Clinton, seeking to head off the worst, combines new economic strictures with cultural openings -- news bureaus in Havana, an exchange of scholars, more visits to the home island by Miami exiles.
The U.S. debate is between two propositions: Whether to foment change by opening contacts between Cuba and the West on the supposition that Communism will collapse much as it did in most of Eastern Europe; or to strangle the regime by increasing the misery of the Cuban people to the breaking point.
We favor the first approach, not only on humanitarian grounds but because it will help prepare Cuba for a transition that will be less traumatic at home and less costly to the U.S.