U.S. hypocrisy on Cuba is worth rethinking

Recently, I heard that John Kerry is described by associates in Congress as a ponderer and a panderer, both presumably bad things.

But only one is bad. What America needs is a president who spends a little more time pondering the issues and crises facing the nation and the world, instead of running us headlong into disaster.


Panderer is certainly a harsh insult. But on some issues it applies to practically every American politician who seeks the presidency or even lesser political office.

Nowhere, perhaps, is the pandering impulse more pronounced than in my native state of Florida, where an influential community of immigrants from Cuba has held America's foreign policy hostage for more than three decades. In a state where fewer than 1,000 votes may decide a close election - or at least drive the decision to the Supreme Court - pandering to the hard-line, anti-Fidel Castro Cuban-American community rises to an obscene frenzy.


President Bush's administration rolls out new rules to make it more difficult for Cubans in America to visit their relatives in Cuba and reduces the amount of money they may send to their families there. Kerry is transformed into a hard-liner, even at the cost of rewriting his own history, as his positions on Cuba historically have been more practical.

In the process, the hypocrisy and counterproductive policy of Washington toward Cuba, designed to bring an end to the Castro regime, endure and no one is better off.

The policy is blatantly hypocritical. For, while Castro is a brutal dictator running a bankrupt, undemocratic, socialist economy, he is the only one of his kind toward whom the United States views engagement as treasonous. This posture flies in the face of the United States' relationship with China, the only country that still calls itself communist and has a regime no less brutal than Castro's. With China, engagement is viewed as the way to bring about transformation from authoritarianism to democracy. Say the same for Vietnam, where the regime that the United States spent billions of dollars and tens of thousands of American lives trying to defeat over more than a decade, is no more democratic now than it was then. But Washington has a full diplomatic relationship with Hanoi.

Going back further into history, and closer to home, Washington's denunciation of Castro for his brutal, dictatorial behavior seemed particularly hypocritical to people elsewhere in Latin America living under the iron-fisted dictatorships of regimes fully supported and sometimes installed by the United States.

Outside of the America whose politics were dominated by the growing influence of the Cuban immigrant community, Castro was viewed as something of a hero for having stood up to the United States. After all, he has survived 10 U. S. presidents.

Don't get me wrong here. I don't have any illusions about Castro and the damage he has done to his people and his legacy by stubbornly - and ruthlessly - resisting any trends toward a freer, more democratic state. For more than 40 years, he has railed against America while his country became poorer. But let's consider who was running Cuba before Castro threw him out: a dictator named Fulgencio Batista, a brute himself, supported by elite Americans and wealthy Cubans, while the rest of the population suffered in terrible poverty, illiteracy and poor health care.

I was in Cuba during Batista's last two years, as a young, casual visitor. Even my hosts, who lived comfortably, were terrified of Batista and his police.

The Cuban-American community's veteran leadership in South Florida today came from the first to flee Castro's Cuba 44 years ago, the ones who were able to get out quickly, many from the old elite. They were not democratically inclined in Cuba. Today, their obsession seems to have more to do with property reclamation than democracy no matter what lip service they give to the nobility of their ambitions.


Interestingly, the old guard in that community has been vastly supplemented by later arrivals from Cuba who have little or no memories of the grand old days of nightclubbing at the Hotel Nacional, country clubs and yacht clubs, and long siestas, often spent with young prostitutes who had no other way to earn a few pesos.

Recent polls indicate that while the old guard may be pleased with the latest restrictions placed on travel and sending money to relatives in Cuba, the newer generation of Cuban immigrants to America is unhappy and deeply concerned about the impact on the loved ones they left behind. So, the hold of the old guard may be slipping, though President Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, will still pander to them because they are better organized politically and more likely to vote.

So here's an idea for John Kerry to ponder: Go down to South Florida, get the new Cuban immigrants organized to vote this November and send a message to the die-hards and Washington that their way hasn't worked.

They may not free Cuba of Castro, but they could help to free America of a voting bloc that hasn't had a creative idea in 40 years while it has skewed U.S. policy.