DWIGHT EISENHOWER was president and Bill Clinton was 12 years old when Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba on New Year's Day 1959. Mr. Clinton is now the ninth president to occupy the White House while Castro has been managing Cuba.
Except for Jimmy Carter, each of Clinton's predecessors in this era tried to get rid of Castro in one way or another. Some ways were dangerous, some foolish; all were futile.
At one time the CIA had 300 officers in Miami, more than anywhere in the world outside Washington. The United States has also waged a continuing campaign to isolate Cuba politically, diplomatically, and economically.
Mr. Carter at least tried to make an opening toward normal relations with Cuba. His administration and the Castro regime established "interest sections" in Washington and Havana. But this initiative fell victim to the adventurism of Cuban troops in Angola and Cuban "advisers" in Ethiopia and Nicaragua.
The American obsession with Castro is in its 35th year. And that counts only the time Castro has been in power. Even before his revolution triumphed, the State Department was frantically and unsuccessfully trying to find an alternative. In this whole period, the only time Cuba has been a threat to the US was when it briefly served in 1962 as a base for Soviet missiles. Otherwise, the island has been, in the trenchant phrase of former Senator Fulbright, "a thorn in the flesh, but not a dagger in the heart ."
For most of this time, Castro and Cuba have survived with massive assistance from what used to be the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. This aid sometimes reached $4 billion a year. It is not flowing any more, and the Castro revolution has fallen on truly hard times.
The way Washington looks at Havana has been influenced by a large, noisy, committed group of Cuban exiles concentrated in Miami. Most have prospered in the US, and their commitment is to the unrealistic task of unscrambling the omelette that Castro has made in Cuba. They have attained political influence disproportionate to their numbers.
US-Cuban policy has always been wrong-headed, but one could at least argue for concern about Cuba as long as Castro appeared to be a Soviet pawn. Now even that is removed. Nor is Cuba any longer a factor in Central America.
The Clinton administration seems as myopic as its predecessors. Clinton took a hard line against Cuba when he was campaigning last fall in Florida. Secretary of State Warren Christopher told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing that he saw no prospect of better relations with Cuba under Castro. (This is the same Christopher who was deputy secretary of state when the Carter administration was in fact bringing about better relations.)
ONE of the legacies of the last Congress is something called the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992. It combines some of the worst examples of overheated congressional rhetoric with provisions further tightening the economic screws on Cuba. The United Nations General Assembly voted 59 to 3 to urge repeal of this law. The two countries that voted with the US against repealing it were Israel and Romania.
One might hope the new Congress would be more reasonable; but Cuba is not high on its agenda, certainly not without a nudge from the White House, which seems unlikely to be forthcoming.
That is too bad, because this would otherwise be a splendid time to put US policy toward Cuba on a more rational basis. That does not mean embracing Castro; he might well rebuff such an overture. It means only treating Cuba the same way we treat, say, the Dominican Republic, but without an aid program.
The posture of the US toward Cuba throughout the Castro regime has been that of an elephant terrified of a mouse. This is unbecoming in a great power.
Putting US-Cuban relations on a rational basis will be at best a slow process. If we start now, we can make measurable progress by 1998. That will be the middle of Clinton's second term and the centennial of the Spanish-American War, which was the first mistake we made about Cuba.