I HAVE ASKED President Clinton to travel to Cuba before he leaves office on Jan. 20.
Our current policy toward Cuba is a throwback to the Cold War and does nothing to promote freedom, democracy, or human rights. Instead, it is used by hard-liners in Cuba to justify the failures and inadequacies of their system.
I realize that such a trip would be controversial. But a majority of Americans - indeed, a majority in Congress - favor improved relations between the United States and Cuba. Sadly, after a recent bipartisan vote in Congress to relax travel and certain trade restrictions, a small group of members in the current House leadership who have a Castro fixation used their power to undermine the will of their colleagues. The irony, of course, is that the very same members of Congress who demand democracy in Cuba apparently do not believe we should practice democracy on the floor of the United States House of Representatives.
Both President-elect George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore pandered to the Cuban-American community in South Florida in an attempt to win votes. it was a sad and frustrating display. Clearly, Bush will do nothing to change a policy that has not only failed but has also helped keep Fidel Castro in power for more than four decades.
President Clinton, if he makes such a trip before the end of his term, can save his successor the embarrassing job of defending America's indefensible policy and at the same time can take a major step in promoting human rights and democratic values.
In January 1998 I was in Cuba as Pope John Paul II visited the island. He spoke freely and critically about the denials of basic freedoms in Cuba and about the importance of religion in people's lives. His remarks were carried live and uncensored on Cuban radio and television. It was a true and inspiring moment in history.
I've since returned to Cuba, and I believe that at least two important developments emerged from the pope's trip. First, the Catholic Church is a much stronger and more relevant institution in Cuba, and it's getting stronger every day. Second, the pope helped open and widen pockets of political space. To be sure, Cuba has a long way to go, but the realities are slowly changing.
No one works a crowd or promotes the democratic values that we Americans hold near and dear to our hearts better than Bill Clinton. He could further create political space; he could expand academic, cultural, and political exchanges; he could increase high-level cooperation on issues like immigration and drug trafficking; he could breathe some new life into the cause of Cuban dissidents; and he could make clear that the United States wants to engage Cuba in much the same way it has engaged China and Vietnam.
And, yes, the president should meet with Fidel Castro. Like it or not, he's the man. Such a meeting is important not so much for what is communicated to Castro; rather, it's important for what will be communicated indirectly to those around him: that a new day is coming.
US presidents have long grappled with the ''Cuba question,'' believing that the right policy is engagement but fearing the political costs of taking such action. The political costs to Clinton no longer exist; he now has the luxury of evaluating this issue solely on the merits. He has the opportunity to do the right thing.
President Clinton can once and for all put our outdated Cuban policy where it belongs - in the history books.
James P. McGovern is the Democratic congressman from Worcester.
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