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Cuba: A Problem of Domestic Politics, Not Foreign Policy

AMERICAN policy for Cuba is hard to sustain - even to explain - because it sets on its ear American policy for the rest of the world.

The United States government fought hard against Soviet resistance to enshrine in the 1975 Helsinki human rights convention the principle of freedom of emigration. The compromise language was ``facilitate freer movement and contacts.'' What was meant for Soviet Jews then does not apply to Cubans today.

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American policy on Mexico is to help establish a viable economy and jobs in Mexico so that Mexicans will not feel forced to migrate. That is policy for Mexico but not for Cuba.

American policy on China is that not sanctions but expansion of trade will lead to democratization and easing of repression. That is policy for China but not for Cuba.

America's Alice-in-Wonderland policy for Cuba is the mirror opposite of all of these. It holds that people should be forced to stay put, that sanctions that make life unbearable for them must be maintained, and that an economic straitjacket will somehow promote freedom rather than chaos.

The origin of this irrationality, of course, is the obsession with thorn-in-side, thumb-on-nose Fidel Castro Ruz, an obsession dating back nine administrations to President Eisenhower. Reacting to invasion-defying, assassination-defying Castro has exerted a profound influence on this superpower.

Cuban exiles provided the foot soldiers for the Watergate and Daniel Ellsberg break-ins. Cuban-Americans form a potent faction and source of political money in Florida. Castro-phobia influenced American intervention in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Grenada. President Kennedy was assassinated by a man who apparently thought he was avenging Castro.

Cuba on our mind! If Cuba represented a threat as a Soviet outpost in the Caribbean, that threat is gone. An aging, graybeard revolutionary asks for mercy, for dialogue of the kind that America has extended to dictators from Syria to North Korea.

But Cuba is different. Cuba represents a cause that is less foreign policy than domestic politics. So, irrational though it may seem, President Clinton, with promises to keep to the Cuban-American lobby, persists in saying to Castro: We will go on trying to make life impossible on your island, but keep your people until something explodes. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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