"Experience keeps a dear school," said Benjamin Franklin, "but fools will learn in no other." But if someone who will learn only from painful experience is a fool, what do you call someone who won't learn from painful experience? Answer: a supporter of our policy toward Cuba.
For nearly half a century, the United States has maintained an economic embargo in an effort to dislodge Fidel Castro from power. The 81-year-old dictator, however, has easily outlasted a succession of American presidents bent on his political demise. Even today, with the dictator incapacitated by poor health, his regime looks more durable than the British monarchy.
A plausible conclusion is that if our boycott didn't achieve its purpose in the 20th century, it will not do so in the 21st. Yet it remains firmly in place, unchallenged by either Republicans or Democrats.
The other day, Sen. Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, reopened the discussion of Cuba policy with an op-ed column in The Miami Herald that accused President Bush of "blundering," stressed the need to "help the Cuban people become less dependent on the Castro regime," and promised to "grant Cuban Americans unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island."
This may sound like a bold and refreshing attempt to overhaul our Cuba policy. In fact, it's a cheerful embrace of a strategy that has proved its futility year after year.
The rules against travel to Cuba, long part of our policy, have grown tighter under Mr. Bush. A poll last year of those in south Florida found that only 28 percent disapprove of the president's overall Cuba policy, but 45 percent oppose his efforts to keep them from visiting or sending money to their relatives there.
Anyone who expected the Democratic takeover of Congress to make a difference on Cuba must have been hallucinating.
In past years, under GOP control, the House voted several times to make it easier for U.S. farmers to sell their crops in Cuba. But when a similar bill came to a floor vote this year, it got trounced. A bill to ease the travel rules, meanwhile, hasn't even gotten a committee hearing.
By supporting more travel, Mr. Obama proved himself to be less timid than Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, who shuns the idea. But even his proposal offers less than meets the eye. He does not suggest anything so revolutionary as, say, letting all Americans decide for themselves whether to visit Mr. Castro's tropical prison camp. The only people he would allow to go, or send money, would be Cuban-Americans.
As for our vain effort to starve Havana into submission, Mr. Obama says he would be willing to "ease" the blockade - not lift it - only if, after Fidel is gone, the "government begins opening Cuba to democratic change."
It's not bad enough that the embargo has been the diplomatic equivalent of the Chicago Cubs - an infallible loser for an astonishing length of time. It's also at odds with our approach to most other communist governments, most notably China. There, we trust that over time, commerce and contact with the West will undermine state control and foster freedom. The experience of recent years validates that belief. Yet the U.S. government takes the position that any policy appropriate to China cannot possibly work in Cuba.
The explanation for this lapse in logic is political. Cuban-Americans mostly support the embargo, and they constitute a small but active voting bloc in Florida - a state that can easily decide a presidential election (as it did in 2000).
Mr. Obama's proposal would be notable if it risked losing votes among Cuban- Americans. In fact, it roughly approximates the position taken by John Kerry in 2004.
It may not be a shock to find that the Illinois senator, who vows to change the way Washington works, plans no such change when it comes to how Washington works on Cuba. But it does suggest that the only place to find Mr. Obama and audacity in close proximity is on the cover of his book.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun.
© 2007 The Baltimore Sun