Reach Out To Cuba's People

January 13, 2007; Page A13


With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visiting Venezuela today, it might be a good time to consider another "change in course" for U.S. policy. The isolation of Cuba, a legacy of the Cold War, is pushing that country closer to America's most dangerous enemies.

In a recent open letter to President Bush, several major Cuban dissident groups called for an end to U.S. restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba. Now joining their call is the Miami-based Cuban Consensus, a coalition of 20 pro-democracy groups including the "hard-line" Cuban-American National Foundation. The advocates for the current policy -- chiefly three intransigent Cuban-American representatives in Congress -- are increasingly alone.

If we don't lift the travel and remittance restrictions now, it is not just the Cuban people who stand to suffer. Allowing Cuba to slip further under the influence of Venezuela's newly reelected Hugo Chávez, the proud new ally of Iran, would be terrible for the U.S.

These restrictions are regulatory, which means that the president could eliminate them tomorrow. But the Helms-Burton law freezes the larger economic embargo in place until the communist regime dismantles its security apparatus and calls for free elections -- and until both Raúl and Fidel Castro are gone. With the changing of the guard in Havana, there will be opportunities for incremental reform. The new Congress must amend Helms-Burton to give the president the flexibility he will need to seize them.

Any major opening -- such as diplomatic talks or relaxation of the embargo -- should be conditioned on Cuba's release of political prisoners, economic reforms, freedom of speech and a dismantling of the neighborhood spy system that has driven Cuban society into such a heartbreaking state of paranoia. But Helms-Burton's rigid, all-or-nothing approach creates no incentive for Cuba's communists to undertake even the most minor reform.

For many supporters of the current policy, isolating Cuba has become almost an end in itself. Nothing could be more perverse. If Cuban culture is exposed to globalization, it will fuel yearning for the freedoms of modernity. If we expand diplomatic contact, we will begin to discover allies within the regime. Allowing Cuba to join the international trade and finance system (which U.S. law largely prevents) will multiply the incentives to liberalize. By isolating Cuba and driving it into the arms of Hugo Chávez, the only real beneficiaries are communist hard-liners -- and their patrons.

Cuba's communist regime has two conflicting needs -- isolation and money. Ending isolation will rebuild the bridges between Cubans and their most natural allies -- the American people. It would also likely expose Cubans to the political and commercial culture of one of the most spectacularly successful immigrant communities in the U.S. -- that of their exiled family members in Miami.

Relaxing the flow of funds from the U.S. would also turn a communist need to our advantage. The more Cuba depends financially on the U.S., the more leverage we will gain in pushing for economic and political reform. Cutting the regime off from sources of financing may have made sense after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Cuba had nowhere else to turn. But now it has Venezuela.

With Fidel Castro's removal from power and imminent demise, the key obstacle to reform within the regime has disappeared. A new generation of bureaucrats now has a chance to gain influence. Many of today's younger "communists" are less interested in the Revolution than in maintaining stability -- and much less interested in Venezuela's patronage than in normalizing relations with the U.S. For Cuba's proud armed forces, the prospect of becoming servants to Mr. Chávez is not attractive. Unfortunately, U.S. stubbornness leaves them little choice.

Cuba's increasing dependence on Mr. Chávez is dangerous for the U.S. Venezuela uses oil money to fuel a global campaign against America. Venezuelan intelligence services set up shop wherever they can in Latin America to eradicate government officials educated in the U.S. or suspected of pro-American sympathies. Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua are falling firmly into Venezuela's orbit. And throughout the Non-Aligned Movement, Mr. Chávez trades oil money for diplomatic support against the U.S. in a new kind of Cold War. Worse, after his recent election victory, Mr. Chávez seems to be claiming a mandate for an even more stridently Castroist and anti-American position -- all of which will influence the direction of the Cuban regime.

Looming on the horizon is an even greater threat. Iran's intelligence services -- perhaps the most prolific and sophisticated terrorist organization in the world -- use diplomatic channels to build their network. And there are clear indications of a renewed Hezbollah effort in South America. Thus Venezuela's new alliance with Iran represents a grave danger to the whole hemisphere. Venezuela is already putting enormous pressure on Cuba to expand its ties with Iran; an Iranian foothold just 90 miles from our own shores would be a catastrophic setback in the war on terror.

Relaxing Cuba's isolation would help diminish a gathering threat to national security, and bring hope to Cubans everywhere that the long tragedy of communism and exile may finally be coming to an end.

Mr. Loyola is a Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.