90 Miles and Light-Years Away

Published: August 10, 2006

President Bush and his top aides have said repeatedly in recent days that they haven’t a clue what’s going on inside Cuba. With Fidel Castro’s health faltering, they need to start figuring it out.

Cuba is a closed, repressive society. But the Bush administration has gone out of its way to ensure that the United States has neither access nor the slightest chance to influence events there.

In the name of tightening the failed embargo — a bipartisan policy for more than four decades — Mr. Bush has made it much harder for academics, artists, religious people and anyone else who might spread the good word about America to travel to Cuba, and much harder for Cubans to travel here. In a decidedly un-family-values move, the administration has also limited visits to Cuba by Cuban-Americans to once every three years.

Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, a would-be Castro, has helped make up any lost cash with cheap oil exports. And Cuban officials who might be tempted to the side of reform have been given more reason to believe Mr. Castro’s claims of unremitting American hostility. In the same cut-off-your-nose spirit, the administration canceled migration talks with Havana — intended to prevent a repeat of earlier boatlifts — that were the only regular high-level sit-downs between the two governments. American diplomats in Havana know their wisest career path is to keep their contacts to the bare minimum.

None of this made much sense when it looked like Mr. Castro would outlast yet another American president. It makes no sense at all now that it’s clear his days are numbered.

The White House is understandably nervous that roiling in Cuba could set off a large flow of refugees. It is considering ways to speed up admission of family members while punishing those who try to jump the queue. It also needs to revive migration talks so the governments can coordinate a humane response should those warnings go unheeded.

The administration has moderated its rhetoric, recognizing that it’s up to Cubans on the island to decide their future. But if Mr. Bush wants to get the message of democracy across he should loosen restrictions on cultural and academic exchanges and open the way for serious diplomatic contacts.

United States law blocks the White House from doing more even if Mr. Castro’s chosen successor, his brother Raúl, shows signs of moderation. Mr. Bush should tell Congress now that he doesn’t want his hands pre-emptively tied that way.

No one knows when Mr. Castro will go or whether it will be with a bang or a whimper. But the policies of self-isolation will ensure that the United States is the last to know when big things happen — and will have no one in Cuba to talk to when they do.

Also reprinted in the International Herald Tribune as
"Start Talking To Cuba" and misdated August 11, 2006