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Addled by Fidel

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Congressional Black Caucus delegation that visited Havana last week was naive not to notice -- or disingenuous not to acknowledge -- that Cuba is hardly the paradise of racial harmony and equality it pretends to be. Still, that's no reason for the United States to continue the illogical, ineffective, hard-line policies that have produced an unbroken 47-year record of failure.

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President Obama's action yesterday -- he eased some restrictions on travel, gifts and remittances, but only for Cuban Americans -- is barely a start. He should go so far as to actually base our Cuba policy on reality. After all, we've tried everything else.

Those who argue for keeping in place the trade embargo and what remains of the travel restrictions -- and even predict that these measures, imposed at a time when the Cold War was getting chillier, will bring the Castro government to its knees any day now -- have been drinking too many mojitos. Claims that the United States would somehow surrender valuable "leverage" by lifting the sanctions are purest fantasy.

People, we have no leverage in Cuba. If we had any, we'd have managed to move the Cuban government an inch or two toward democratic reform in the past five decades.

What we should do is lift the embargo, which Obama hasn't meaningfully disturbed, and end the travel ban for everyone. That would put the onus on the Cubans to somehow keep hordes of American capitalists and tourists from infecting the island with dangerous, counterrevolutionary ideas. But we should take these steps with our eyes open, seeing Cuba as it is, not as we might want it to be.

By now it should be dawning on the seven U.S. legislators who got the red-carpet tour last week -- including six members of the Black Caucus -- that first impressions can be unreliable. Three members of the delegation were granted a rare audience with the ailing Fidel Castro. "He looked directly into my eyes," said Rep. Laura Richardson (D-Calif.), "and then he asked: 'How can we help President Obama?' [Fidel Castro] really wants President Obama to succeed."

No, he really doesn't. As it happened, Castro quickly demonstrated that he didn't even wish the delegation well, let alone the current occupant of the White House. After the meeting, Castro issued a statement claiming that one of his visitors had said the United States should "apologize" to Cuba and that another had said U.S. society is still "racist." Members of the delegation denied that any such exchanges had taken place -- and I believe them.

It is in Castro's interest to sabotage any genuine movement in Washington toward normalized relations, because a lessening of tension would destroy the government's stated rationale for denying Cubans basic political freedoms: that any opening would be exploited by the imperialist enemy to the north. It is also in Castro's interest to portray the United States as irredeemably racist -- unlike Cuba under the tutelage of the revolution.

In 10 reporting trips to the island, I have met Afro-Cubans who told me with conviction that they have had opportunities under the Castro regime -- especially in health and education -- that would have been unimaginable before the revolution. But I've also heard bitter complaints about deep-seated racism that many black Cubans believe is getting worse.

Race is a touchy subject in Cuba, and for many years it went all but unmentioned. Raúl Castro, who knows the island and its people as well as his older brother does, caused a stir in 2000 when he said that if a hotel were to deny entry to a person because he or she is black, that hotel should be shut down -- an acknowledgment that such things happen. Popular rappers in Cuba's hip-hop underground have made racial grievance a major theme of their daring lyrics. I once interviewed a Cuban scholar whose husband, an officer in the military, pooh-poohed her research into racial discrimination -- until he had the experience of being detained and harassed by police for no apparent reason other than his dark skin.

Even without meeting with any of the well-known black dissidents on the island, the visitors from Washington could have observed that the workforce in Cuba's burgeoning tourism industry -- arguably the most privileged class, since waiters and cab drivers receive tips in hard currency, which allows them a standard of living far beyond what is possible with Cuban pesos and government rations -- is disproportionately white.

Members of the Black Caucus are, quite properly, quick to notice such insults and disparities at home. Maybe they were too busy looking into Fidel's eyes.

The writer will answer questions at 1 p.m. today at http://www.washingtonpost.com. His e-mail address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.


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