Like righteous missionaries spreading their version of the Word, the Reagan administration has announced plans to "tell the truth to the Cuban people." A $10 million federally sponsored radio station, similar to Radio Free Europe, is scheduled to begin dispensing enlightenment -- as interpreted by the Reagan administration -- in January.
Richard Allen, a member of the Reagan truth squad and a budding jingo, depicts Cuba as an island of ignorance: Its "people don't know about their government's mismanagement and its promotion of subversion and international terrorism in this hemisphere and elsewhere." Cubans tuning into this version of "To Tell the Truth" are meant to learn what Fidel Castro's wretchedness is costing "in terms of living standards for them and their children . . . ."
On the day of this announcement, two prominent businessmen were in Washington attending a conference on U.S. and Cuba trade relations. They had a few truths of their own to tell, though not the kind favored by the Reagan administration. George Pillsbury, a pedigree Republican who is both a director of his family's food company and a Minnesota state senator, told the gathering that the 20-year trade embargo against Cuba represents "economic illiteracy . . . on the part of the people in our country who make foreign policy."
Pillsbury, whose company thrived in Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s, visited Havana last July. In recalling that and earlier trips, he said, "Our policy in Cuba is an emotional reaction." He likened our diplomacy to a schoolyard tantrum: "Someone did something we didn't like and, by gosh, we were going to find a way to punish them . . . . We have to find a way to overcome an emotional feeling about Cuba among our policymakers and a lot of the voters."
The other businessman was Noel Blackman, the president of the Shore Lobster and Shrimp Company in New York and the director of the American Association of Seafood Importers. He has been to Cuba five times.
Blackman finds it odd -- no, bizarre and self-defeating -- that we import shrimp from China and Russia but not from Cuba. The island is the second-largest producer of lobster tails in Latin America. Blackman says that if his industry could import shrimp and lobster from Cuba, "we could reduce the cost of seafood considerably."
Blackman, a leader in an industry known for its rough characters, argues compellingly that "we have to realize that Fidel Castro is no longer a rebel or a bandit. He's been there for a whole generation and it looks like he's going to be there for a heck of a time longer . . . . It's time to sit down and . . . say, 'We made a mistake and it's time to change our feelings.' It'll take a big man or a big government to say maybe we made a mistake."
The Reagan Cuba policy functions on smallness. Its plans to tell Cubans what's wrong with Cuba -- make 'em mad enough and maybe they'll ship Fidel to Moscow -- was announced a few days after another effort in low diplomacy. The State Department denied visas to some officials of the Castro government who were invited to the Washington conference.
Apparently the Cubans might contaminate America with such subversive information that it has a literacy rate of 94 percent (far above that of the United States), that its infant mortality and life expectancy rates lead all Latin American nations, that it has long been a reliable trading partner with Canada, Japan and Spain.
But no Communist Cuban was to be allowed in Washington to talk like that. We have the truth, not Cuba. We speak, they listen. We spend $10 million to beam propaganda into their country, while confiscating -- we did last May -- Cuban periodicals mailed into the United States. The embargo on commerce has become the embargo on thought.
The contradictions collide like asteroids in space. We are a country founded on the free exchange of ideas, yet we suppress even a minor dialogue with Cuba. We are selling grain at record rates to the dictators of the Kremlin who are ready with nuclear bombs to destroy us, but we won't sell a loaf of bread to Fidel Castro, a petty tyrant who merely screams at us in five-hour speeches. We know that Cuba has made amazing advances against illiteracy, but we who have at least 25 million illiterates refuse to learn how it was done.
The Reagan administration appears obsessed with the cheap thrill of bullying Cuba. Except, as businessmen like Pillsbury and Blackman are saying, we are inept bullies: We punch Cuba and all we do is hurt our own hand.