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Senseless crackdown on Cuba

WHILE AMERICA was watching the images of abused Iraqi prisoners, I saw the same images from my hotel room in another country slated for regime change: Cuba. I'd gone there to do research on that nation's biotech industry. During the week I spent there I learned more about my own country than I'd expected -- much of it disappointing. I'd always been an agnostic on Castro and Cuba, but it's hard to remain that way after seeing the collateral effects of our four-decade embargo. Whole sections of Havana seem to be decaying. Hospitals exist day to day on medicines, researchers improvise scientific equipment, and there are national shortages in just about everything. Even accounting for Cuban mismanagement, world health authorities have linked the embargo and its ripple effects to epidemics and food shortages.

The embargo does more than cut off American trade. It seeks to prevent all other commerce as well. Under the ever tightening restrictions, no ship that loads or unloads anything in a Cuban port can dock in America for six months. Food and medicine have been restricted. Foreign companies that do business with Cuba are discouraged or even prohibited from doing business in the United States. In other words, even though no other nations agree with our Cuba policy, we bludgeon them into acquiescing. Sound familiar?

Those measures are sinking to new levels of meanness under the Bush administration. Eager to curry the Miami extremist vote, the administration has eliminated all "people to people" cultural exchanges and university-related educational travel. Customs agents at airports in Canada, Mexico, and other third-country way stations have been alerted to nab any American tourists who might try to end-run the travel restrictions. The enforcement branch of the Treasury Department has beefed up its anti-Cuba surveillance, devoting 21 full-time employees to enforcing the Cuban embargo and travel ban. Only four track the finances of Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Explaining the policy in a February speech, Treasury Secretary John Snow said, "We're cutting off American dollars headed for Fidel Castro, period."

But is it really about dollars? Or is it about stopping all contact between Cubans and Americans?

This spring the Treasury Department canceled permission for 75 American neurologists and bioethicists to travel to Havana just days before they were scheduled to depart for an international conference on coma and death. In February the State Department refused to allow Ibrahim Ferrer, the 76-year-old singer with the Buena Vista Social Club, to attend the Grammy Awards because his entry would be "detrimental to the interests" of our country.

Just a few weeks ago, our government fined Barbara and Wally Smith, a retired Vermont couple, $55,000 for violating the travel ban. Their crime: bicycling around Cuba and creating a book and website about the trip.

With the election approaching, Bush wants to tighten the screws even further. Last week the government released its long-awaited 500-page plan to help remove Castro's "decrepit regime," in the words of Assistant Secretary of State Robert Noriega. We will be spending $59 million over the next two years to help bring about the regime change in Cuba, up from the current level of $7 million per year.

Maybe there was once reason for the embargo. But the Cuban missile crisis was more than 40 years ago. The island poses no threat to us now, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union. (The Bush administration's charges of bioweapons production have been shown to be groundless by a team of distinguished American investigators.)

Nor does the embargo have anything to do with human rights. China had a worse record when Nixon opened the door in 1972, and American trade helped liberalize that nation. Americans can legally to travel to such paragons of human rights as Libya, North Vietnam, and Algeria. Cuba is the world's only country to which the United States forbids our own ordinary citizens to travel.

The Cubans I met were well educated, resilient, and showed no trace of self-pity despite facing daunting odds every day. They enjoy universal literacy and health care. Despite Cuba's poverty, its life expectancy and infant mortality rates equal those of the United States, according to the World Health Organization. They seem to have creative energy to burn.

They're also eager for American tourism and trade, which experience shows would liberalize their politics. Meanwhile, as one Cuban asked me: "Aren't we allowed to have our own form of government?"

Back in my hotel room, I flipped on CNN and watched the kaleidoscope of images that constitute the news from America: Soldiers in body armor, Michael Jackson waving to admirers, a commercial for a lumbering SUV. And then came the photos of the abused Iraqi prisoners. Does this reflect the values of the world's greatest democracy? Or does it reinforce what the rest of the world thinks our nation has become -- a spoiled, self-absorbed, adolescent bully?

Douglas Starr is co-director of the Knight Center for Science and Medical Journalism at the Boston University College of Communication.  

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