WASHINGTON -- Next to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro is not looking so bad these days.
Not on Capitol Hill, anyway.
Travel and trade bans seem to be on their last legs, and as far as I am concerned the change is long overdue, not only for the good of Cuba but also for the good of us, her neighbors to the north.
Having visited Cuba in May, a week after Jimmy Carter became the first former American president to visit Mr. Castro, I'm more convinced than ever that the best way to kill Mr. Castro's communism is with capitalism -- and lots of it.
I suspect that the Bush brothers feel the same way in their heart of hearts. Cuba trade is the only major issue on which George W. finds himself going against the grain of his strongest political base, the Republican Party's corporate wing.
Yet, the House in late July approved proposals by two Republican members to ease travel and trade restrictions, while leaving most of the 42-year-old trade embargo intact. Similar measures have passed the House before, but these appear to have unusually high chances of surviving the Senate and landing on Mr. Bush's desk.
The president has threatened to veto the measures. But since they are attached as amendments to Treasury and Postal Service spending bills, he has a good excuse to sign the measures to avoid a budget crisis.
And that would be just fine. Even dissident Cubans and independent journalists with whom I spoke in Cuba agreed that the embargo helps Mr. Castro more than it hurts him. It gives the bearded one a convenient American scapegoat to blame for his island's many problems. It also isolates even further the dissidents and independent journalists who would like to see more political and economic freedoms.
The end of the Cold War took the steam out of Mr. Castro's image as a threat to Americans. Quite the opposite, the loss of more than $1 million a day in subsidies when the Soviet Union collapsed forced Mr. Castro to enact drastic reforms, including legalizing the dollar and encouraging tourism.
The result is a dual economy at war with itself. Top pay scale for a doctor under Castro socialism comes to about $25 (American) per month. Bellhops and waitresses can make more than that in one evening of work at the spiffy new hotels that Mr. Castro's government operates in joint partnerships with European companies.
Unlike the old international sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime, the United States is the only country boycotting Cuba. Yet more than 200,000 American tourists are estimated to be visiting Cuba illegally every year.
American corn and wheat farmers and numerous other producers would like to sell their wares to Cubans, who are eager to purchase them. Investors would follow, putting even more pressure on the Castro regime to allow private property, contracts and other reforms he needs to get his economy humming in a way that can unleash the entrepreneurial spirit so many Cubans already show in the island's thriving underground economy.
If so, good riddance. The time has come to talk about what post-Castro Cuba will be like. Mr. Castro turned 76 in mid-August. Nobody lives forever, even if Mr. Castro, now working on his 10th U.S. president, shows a better than even sign of surviving this one, too.
Nevertheless, I could not find anyone inside or outside of the revolution in Havana who could say with much certainty who or what will follow when Mr. Castro is gone or when the trade embargo ends. His brother Raul, Fidel's designated successor, is only five years younger, not a spring chicken, either. After the Castros, what then?
The worst-case scenario for post-Castro Cuba is a massive power struggle with all of the brutality and chaos that one can imagine. The best-case scenario is the South African model of a smooth transition to democratic rule and a mixed economy that still could maintain the Castro revolution's two grandest achievements, free education and free health care. Imagine, say, a Caribbean version of Sweden.
The reality probably is going to be something in between those two visions.
America can help Cubans toward a better future, not as foes but as producers and consumers.
First, we need to tear down the sugar-cane curtain that still stands between us.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.