Cuba is changing - despite Fidel Castro's best efforts to resist. By revealing how many people in Cuba want things to change, and how deeply they want it, Pope John Paul's visit to the island last month has probably accelerated the pace of change.
There are other reasons to expect that pace to quicken. As time passes, Castro's ability to impose his will on the country is diminishing. The economic changes that survival has forced on the Cuban government are provoking further changes, not only in the economy, but also in Cuba's politics and social relations.
While this is happening, while the Roman Catholic Church actively promotes political and religious opening in Cuba, the US government is holding its breath and keeping its fingers crossed that, somehow, things turn out all right.
A peaceful transition to democracy has been the stated, and widely accepted, goal of US policy in Cuba. This is the right goal, but the Clinton administration - hamstrung by congressional legislation and political timidity - is not doing anything to achieve it. In fact, by inaction we may unwittingly increase the chances of a violent and chaotic transition. That is too bad, because there is a lot that the US could do.
First, we could help to alleviate Cuba's humanitarian crisis. The Cuban economy is in dire straits, and people are suffering. Cubans are short of food. Hospitals are desperately in need of medicine and supplies. The US is not to blame for this tragic situation - but we could do a great deal to help.
In recent weeks, Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and the Cuban-American National Foundation - arguably the two most implacable foes of the Castro regime - have recognized the need for humanitarian assistance. Cuban-Americans in the US are already sending hundreds of millions of dollars to their families on the island. The pope made the needs clear, and the Catholic church has now asked the administration to approve direct flights to bring medical supplies from Miami to Havana. Surely, there must be some way to get over the political hurdles and help bring an end to the most visible suffering of ordinary Cubans.
Second, the US government should undertake to negotiate agreements with Cuba on concrete issues in which we have mutual interests. The 1995 agreement regulating Cuban migration to the US is one example. Cuba and the US should also be able to find ways to increase cooperation on drug trafficking, allow for the inspection of nuclear power plants, regularly share information on weather and weather-related disasters, clean up pollution in the straits that separate Florida and Cuba, and protect Cuba's biodiversity. These are goals that the US is pursuing in virtually every other setting, and would clearly benefit both countries.
Third, Washington should expand existing military confidence-building measures. We should, for example, be sure to notify Cuban authorities in advance of any military exercises near the island, routinely inform them about violations of its air and water space by drug traffickers, and expand military contacts between the US and Cuban armed forces.
These and similar measures - by improving communication and reducing mistrust - would lessen the prospects of some future armed conflict between the two countries and amplify the chances for a peaceful transition.
Fourth, the US government should actively encourage the genuinely free flow of information, ideas, and people between the US and Cuba. We should encourage cultural, scientific, and academic exchanges in both directions, and allow the use of US government and private funds to finance such exchanges. In addition, Washington should be urging, not opposing, efforts by the international financial organizations - the World Bank, the IMF, and the Inter-American Development Bank - to begin working with Cuba, and establish a path toward Cuba's membership in these organizations. They all have long experience in promoting economic change.
Finally, the US should react positively to initiatives by the Cuban government that promise greater freedom in Cuba. Cuba's release of political prisoners, as called for by the pope, should produce a response from the US that encourages and challenges the Cuban authorities to do more - with the promise that the US will continue to respond in kind.
No one should be deceived. As long as Fidel Castro retains power, none of these efforts are likely to lead to democratic politics or an open market economy in Cuba. They are, instead, a way for the US to begin constructively to help Cuba and the Cuban people prepare for a better future, and make life a little easier for them now.
* Peter Hakim is president of the Inter-American Dialogue and a regular contributor to the Monitor.