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In a humid pre-dawn Wednesday a few weeks ago, I watched from Havana’s Hotel Nacional as thousands of Cubans poured onto the beachfront Malecon highway. They were gathering to march on the United States Interests Section — the State Department euphemism for its Havana embassy — to demonstrate against the continuing U.S. trade embargo. Some demonstrators carried pictures of national poet and patriot Jos� Mart�, a onetime Key West, Fla., resident. Others had huge portraits of Abraham Lincoln, who, the Cuban paper Granma explained, “tried to teach his country respect for the rights of other nations.” The Lincoln pictures played counterpoint to U.S. co-option of the Cuban patriot’s name for anti-Communist Radio Mart�. Eventually the septuagenarian Fidel Castro joined the marchers. News photos the next day showed him resplendent in green fatigues and white sneakers, beaming like a man who loved his work. Castro and the demonstrators were generally upset with the Cuban policies of the Gringo Colossus across the Florida Straits. But their immediate ire was aimed at U.S. congressional efforts to “lift” the trade embargo on food sales — efforts that had ended with legislation which still effectively blocks such sales, continues the misery-inducing embargo, and makes it more difficult for Americans to visit Commie Land in the Caribbean. Cuba’s economic failures are the result of a planned economy and a wrong bet on the Cold War. Before Castro, Cuba had one of the highest standards of living in Latin America. Now it rivals Haiti for the lowest. The embargo helps keep things that way. But it imposes few hardships on Havana’s burgeoning foreign population, which is made up mostly of tourists, many here to make the acquaintance of the island’s renascent sex industry. They can drink Cuba Libres; the Coke comes from Canada. Official Cuban hostility to the United States government still has the unrequited fury of a Caribbean hurricane. Castro calls Radio Mart� “Radio Goebbels,” “Radio Hitler,” or his ultimate insult, “Radio Reagan.” This decrepit island nation is less of a threat to the United States than Libya or Syria. Yet last week’s trade legislation puts more stringent restrictions on Cuba than on either the Tripoli or Damascus regimes. Speaking by telephone on Cubavision the night after the demonstration, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark gently explained to the television audience that not many Americans knew or cared about the Cuban trade bill or Cuban policy one way or another. What Clark didn’t mention was how this indifference allowed anti-Castro Cuban-American groups to hijack the trade liberalization measure. The original version removed all sanctions on food sales. It was part of a larger agricultural bill that was initially approved by large majorities in both the House and Senate. But election-year considerations gave an opening for south Florida representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to gut the legislation. The bill creates financing roadblocks that will prevent any purchases by Cuba. But there may be a loosening of the blockade after the U.S. elections make Florida political opinion less important. And recent polls by Florida International University show growing divisions within the Cuban-American community about the wisdom of the embargo. Cuba has increasingly “dollarized” its economy during the past seven years, and U.S. money freely circulates. Socialism is slowly being pushed aside by creeping private enterprise. United States policy should expedite this process by opening up trade with Cuba, not blocking it. Encouraging private economic growth would better stimulate political change than a policy of trying to starve the country. It would also cushion the shock of the eventual passing of Castro and Communism in Cuba. Cuban experience with representative democracy is limited. Castro overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista, a former Cuban Army sergeant who had rented out his country to Meyer Lansky and other gangsters. In pre-Castro Cuba, the U.S. Mafia could hold a summit at the Nacional and close the hotel to everyone not invited, including Cuban government officials. The young Castro, a lawyer, once sued in a Cuban court to remove Batista. When that didn’t work, he and Che Guevara started their revolution. Forty years later the American gangsters are gone, but the political order remains authoritarian. A lack of private infrastructure heightens the possibilities for political chaos after Castro. Meanwhile, daily life in Cuba goes on, poorly. The day after the march, I read the Granma reports about the demonstration while sitting in the Castillo del Farn�s, a little bar in old Havana. It’s a former Castro hangout where he and Guevara toasted the overthrow of Batista. Granma claimed that more than a million demonstrators had taken part. If true, that would be equal to half of Havana’s total population. I was the only customer in the centrally located Castillo. I wondered if it would become a Burger King after Castro goes. At least the American embargo may spare it that fate for a while. A Cuban band started up in a saloon across the street, and I watched European and American tourists entering. A clutch of Cubans, without the American dollars needed to go in, gathered outside to listen through a wooden lattice and dance awkwardly on the narrow sidewalk. Watching this scene called to mind Guevara’s description of Cuba as “revolution with pachanga.” In today’s Havana even the chance to dance a pachanga is best bought with a dollar. George M. Kraw is a San Jose, Calif., attorney. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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