Terrible timing

You can wait too long to do what is right

Issue: "CCM: Salt or sugar?," May 13, 2000

I am not a Cuba expert. I did spend nearly a week there in the early 1990s, and both native Cubans and other people who have studied the beleaguered country with some diligence tell me my reports in WORLD when I returned were accurate and on target. I've continued to read and observe-but heavens!, I don't even speak Spanish.

But now I'll make three assertions about Cuba I believe are rooted in both reality and wisdom:

(1) The United States should long ago have lifted its trade embargo. I said this when I first returned from Cuba. Then I wrote my U.S. senator, Jesse Helms, arguing the point to him in personal correspondence, and asking him as chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee to pursue such a goal. (In a kind but brief letter back, he disagreed.) Just a little over a year ago, I included in this column my personal "wish list" for the year 1999. Wish No. 3 asked for "Freedom during 1999 for the patient people of Cuba. Since visiting Havana for a week several years ago, I've longed for Cubans to have their own clanky Iron Curtain lifted. Forty years is a long time to wait in this fast-moving world. The best way to end the Castro regime: Let the president announce that we're lifting economic sanctions and are ready to trade Fidel into oblivion."

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(2) No one should be surprised if the Clinton administration does exactly that sometime between now and next January. The electoral dynamics are pretty murky, and if such a dramatic announcement comes, it's most likely to happen between Election Day on November 7 and the inauguration of our new president next January. But no one doubts that Bill Clinton gets more anxious every day to make his mark, to establish his legacy in some colorful and climactic action for the history books. And it's hard not to believe that even now, feverish planning is taking place for some heart-rending spectacle-probably with photogenic Elián Gonzalez holding hands at center stage with a teary Bill Clinton-that will mark the formal end of estrangement between the U.S. and Cuba. Count on it as the biggest and showiest of Mr. Clinton's closing bids.

(3) It would be terribly wrong to do right now what I (along with many others) have been saying repeatedly ought to be done. Even if something is both right and important to do at one point, you can wait too long to do it-and then it becomes dangerously evil to do what before would have been laudatory. To lift the trade sanction against Cuba right now would send all the wrong messages.

I know some critics will charge that for some of us, Bill Clinton can do no right-that he can't get a passing grade from us in any subject. And it's true he's gotten pretty close to such an intuitive response. But had this president taken precisely this action when we first called for it, or even a year ago, this column would have supported the policy on both an ethical and a pragmatic basis. Now, sadly, it is too late.

It is too late primarily because to take the action now is to treat Fidel Castro as a good-faith player on the world stage when he is in fact a goon and a two-bit pretender. To have surprised him with such a challenge half a dozen years ago would have exposed him as a fraud. To try it now is to extend to him a credibility for which he has no rightful claim-a credibility which he would no doubt use to prolong and extend his evil dictatorship.

It is also too late now to achieve the good we might have gained earlier because such an action would be so widely interpreted now as a concession rather than a challenge. The months of negotiation that have elapsed since Elián's rescue last November have already radically changed the dynamics of the two nations' relationship. It was right to call Mr. Castro's bluff. It is wrong to buckle to his belligerence.

It is also too late now because such action at this point would so blatantly break faith with those true Cuban patriots, both living and dead, both here in the United States, still in Cuba, and elsewhere, who have been so stalwart for freedom. Admittedly, most of them would have opposed the lifting of sanctions at any point. But however painfully, it could have been accomplished in a less polarized atmosphere. Now such an action would be to spit in their faces and to rub their noses in ignominy. Are they perfect people? Of course not. Have they conducted their protest with perfect consistency? Hardly. Such rarely happens when passions are tested to the limits. But betrayal of these folks now is unthinkable. The window has closed.

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