Havana Hoedown Confronts Both Castro and U.S.

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Havana and Washington got their first glimpse Tuesday of what a post-embargo Cuba may look like. Fidel Castro donned a business suit to revel in the presence of the heads of state of Spain, Portugal and 14 Latin American countries at an Ibero-American summit on the once-isolated island. But many of his guests pointedly chastised the Cuban leader over human rights, and held meetings with the dissidents Castro had tried to keep under the carpet. In spite of that, the summit was clearly a diplomatic triumph for the aging Cuban strongman, because it represented an explicit repudiation of the embargo maintained by eight successive U.S. presidents. The summit's draft declaration in fact contains a strong critique of the Helms-Burton law by which the U.S. seeks to force other countries to uphold its embargo.

Even for the U.S. — the only country of any consequence that maintains an embargo of Cuba — the policy may be a fading reality, maintained primarily out of concern for the electoral clout of the anti-Castro lobby in swing states such as New Jersey and Florida. But public opinion may have swung the other way, with a Reuters survey in the spring finding two thirds of Americans opposed to the embargo. Moves to end it are growing ever bolder and more numerous: Washington has relaxed restrictions on direct flights to the island, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donohue and Illinois's Republican governor George Ryan have both made strong appeals last month to end the embargo, while Missouri GOP senator John Ashcroft is currently promoting a bill to ease restrictions on sales of food and medicine to Cuba. The Ibero-American summit will likely fuel the anti-embargo argument, since the event has clearly provided a boon for the anti-Castro opposition inside Cuba, and whatever kudos Castro has accrued from the arrival of foreign dignitaries has been tempered by their challenges to his human rights record. Comparisons with the U.S.-China relationship may become irresistible.