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By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2002, The Boston Globe

May 30, 2002

Last week, in a heartfelt address, President Bush spoke out in support of a nation suffering under tyranny. He declared that its people are entitled to liberty, democracy, and dignity, and he condemned the dictator "who jails and tortures and exiles his political opponents." He called for free elections and free speech; he insisted on the right of workers to form trade unions and of humanitarian groups to operate unmolested. And he promised that the United States would continue to press this odious regime to "finally begin respecting the human rights of its people."

But the president's message was more nuanced than a blanket censure. He acknowledged that democratic reform sometimes comes slowly, and made it clear that Washington would respond encouragingly if it saw even halting progress toward liberty and the rule of law. "The United States recognizes," he said, "that freedom sometimes grows step by step."

If Bush's speech had been about the vicious dictatorship in Burma, he would have won plaudits in all quarters. If he had been speaking of Saudi Arabia's corrupt theocrats or the depraved rulers of Sudan, the editorial pages would have sung his praises and Capitol Hill would have cheered. But because his speech was about Cuba, and because he delivered it before an appreciative audience of Cuban-Americans, it was promptly dismissed in elite circles as nothing more than right-wing pandering.

Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota sneered that the president's stand was "driven by politics, not policy." USA Today brushed it off as "an anachronistic failure" and even pooh-poohed Bush's proposal to direct more philanthropic and educational aid to Cuban citizens. At the Council on Foreign Relations, a venerable font of conventional wisdom, Walter Russell Mead poured scorn on a "do-nothing speech" that was "not . . . very convincing or effective."

More hostile still was the Los Angeles Times, which headlined its Page 1 story "Castro Must Yield to US, Bush Says" -- as though forcing Castro to bend his knee to Washington, not liberty for the Cuban people, is Bush's true aim. Below the headline, the Times reported in its lead that Bush had reaffirmed the American "economic quarantine" of Cuba. But there is no "quarantine;" there is only an embargo on US-Cuban business that leaves Castro free to trade with every other country on earth.

Reasonable people can differ on the efficacy of the embargo, but surely all Americans ought to be able to agree that Castro's reign is an abomination. Liberals and conservatives alike should find Cuban totalitarianism an affront to human decency and a blot on the Western hemisphere.

So why is it that so many critics of the administration's position expend far more energy denouncing the US embargo than calling for an end to Castro's repression? The abuse of Cuban dissenters doesn't seem to anger them nearly as much as the loss of business opportunities caused by the US ban. What is it that really motivates the anti-embargo lobby? A yen for liberty -- or for profits?

A few days before Bush's speech, 14 members of the congressional Cuba Working Group held a press conference to discuss their views of US policy toward Cuba. My transcript of the event runs to 12 pages of single-spaced type. It is a revealing document.

All 14 congressmen spoke, yet not one expressed outrage over the way Castro suffocates the Cuban people. Not one denounced the lack of free speech, or the elaborate network of government informers, or the misery that drives countless Cubans each year to risk death in an effort to escape Fidelismo. Oh, there was a passing reference now and then to democracy or human rights, but on the whole the Cuba Working Group seemed to get passionate only when the topic turned to the quantities of dried beans and chicken legs that Cuba is supposedly keen to import. Would 14 members of a South Africa Working Group in the 1980s have called a press conference and neglected to express their revulsion for apartheid?

At one point Representative James McGovern of Massachusetts saluted former President Jimmy Carter for "having the guts to go to Cuba, for standing before the Cuban government and speaking the truth about human rights." But when I asked McGovern the other day whether he was equally proud of Bush for speaking the truth about human rights, he pronounced himself "very disappointed with the president's speech. It was precisely the opposite of what the dissidents have asked for."

It is true that some Cuban dissidents call for an immediate end to the US embargo. But others call for it to remain in force until Castro leaves. And still others want what Bush wants -- an end to economic sanctions, but only in exchange for irrevocable democratic reform.

McGovern says that promotion of democracy and human rights is the very raison d'etre of the Cuba Working Group. Perhaps so. But while he and his colleagues persist in talking about the embargo, Bush is reminding the world that the real issue is freedom. The polestar of his Cuba policy is liberty, not chicken legs. When the Cuban people are free at last, they will not forget his steadfastness.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe
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