For almost fifty years, U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba has been predicated on bringing the regime of President Fidel Castro to an end. That policy, an artifact of the Cold War, has done nothing to change Cuba; it is a museum piece not unlike the American cars from the fifties that cough and wheeze their way through Havana's traffic, and is has left America isolated from the actions and passions of Cuban life.
With Fidel's illness and the temporary transfer of his power to his brother, Raul Castro, Cuba has vaulted back onto the front page for the first time since the tug of war over Elian Gonzalez. This is America's final chance to get our Cuba policy right before the transition becomes permanent.
During the week of September 11th, 2001, I made my second trip to Cuba as the leader of a research delegation. Outside of Havana's Parque Central Hotel, we got word that planes had crashed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and into a field in Pennsylvania.
My colleagues and I were overwhelmed twice during those fearful days: first, by the horror of seeing our country attacked and being unable to reach our families, and again by the generous, deeply sympathetic reaction of Cubans, who expressed genuine hurt and outrage against the terrorism visited upon our country and the frightening loss of life.
More than a little numb and unable to come home, the delegation continued our schedule of meetings with government officials and representatives of Cuba's civil society. Without fail, these encounters began and ended with compassionate words for their visitors and for the American people.
At the start of our tour of old Havana, our guide from the architect's office added his condolences with a quote by Cuba's national hero, Jose Marti. Marti had written that there were two kinds of men in this world, those who love and build, and those who hate and destroy. Our guide said that was pleased the American people and the Cuban people both belonged to the same group, and then his tears wet our faces.
That September, no flags were burned in Cuba; there were no raucous street demonstrations or celebrations of any kind. It was all about decency and respect. Five years later, with Cubans facing the anxiety of losing the only leader most have ever known, if only the same could be said of the United States.
On the streets of little Havana in Miami, horns are honking and people are dancing to celebrate - perhaps just a bit too soon - the Cuban leaders' demise. The same Members of Congress who wanted to kidnap and keep Elian Gonzalez are now urging Cubans to engage in acts of civil disobedience against Raul Castro. The Miami political leadership is actually considering renting the Orange Bowl and having a big party, as one news organization said, to "channel some of the excitement."
Meanwhile, Congress is having trouble containing its excitement. Senator Jon Ensign has thrown together legislation to give grants to elements in Cuba's civil society - including independent environmental groups, whatever they are - who will help thwart a transition to a Raul Castro regime and put into place a government more to the liking of the United States.
As the Congress polishes its proposed means of intervention in Cuba, our Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez warned third parties in the hemisphere against intervening in Cuba (here he meant but didn't say Venezuela), because apparently intervening in Cuba is not their job, it's our job. After all, we've been doing it for 47 years.
So far, Congressman Jose Serrano has been one of the few voices of reason. Earlier this week, he said "Should Fidel Castro ultimately be unable to continue to lead Cuba, we must leave the transition to the Cubans... The Cubans themselves must make decisions about their future, free of threats and intervention from abroad."
As the saying goes, reports of Castro's death have been greatly exaggerated. For all we know, he'll be back at the helm in Havana reading all the premature obituaries issued by American newspapers and diplomats, and having a good laugh at our expense. A lot of experts call this the "road test theory," with canny Castro reading and learning how Cubans and others around the world will react to Raul when he finally does take the reins from his brother's hands.
Others believe this transition has already happened. The next chapter of Cuba's history -post Fidel - is already being written, and Raul is the new Cuban reality. If that's the case, we have a dilemma.
The right thing to do would be to talk with Cuba, and start engaging. But current law prohibits the United States from recognizing a government led by Raul Castro. If this transition is real, we will be the only government on the planet not recognizing the new reality in Cuba. We won't have diplomatic relations, we won't have trade, and we won't have free travel, only the isolation which has characterized the relationship for forty-seven years.
That's nuts. What if we stopped the celebrations, stopped measuring Castro's office for American-made curtains, and started thinking about what Cubans want for themselves and their future. What if we finally consulted the Cuban people and started treating them with the same dignity and respect they accorded us at our moment of national tragedy?
That may not be possible, because those ideals are so consistently absent from U.S. foreign policy these days, but we know that we can do better.
It seems that if we had learned anything post 9-11, or from our more recent adventures in regime change, it's that our nation does better when it listens and treats other countries with decency and respect. We do that with lots of countries with very different values and political systems (think of China, Vietnam, or Saudi Arabia). Fifty years of regime change schemes and bullying has got us nowhere with Fidel's Cuba. The Cuba that will emerge after Fidel deserves to see the better side of the U.S. and now is the time to show it.