Castro Makes Hay in Embargo's Twilight

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When the U.S. embargo on Cuba finally goes, no one will miss it as much as Fidel Castro. That much was clear Wednesday when the Cuban strongman led a reported 800,000 people in a protest march along Havana's oceanfront to denounce Washington's latest adjustments to the 38-year embargo. Now that little Elian Gonzalez is back at school, the embargo remains the most useful tool in Castro's ideological shed: It provides both an all-purpose excuse for the privations suffered by his people since the collapse of Cuban socialism's Soviet patron, and a nationalist rallying point against the yanqui just across the water. And U.S. election years usually provide him with plenty of ammunition.

It may have looked a little incongruous, perhaps, that the Cuban leader donned his sneakers and led the equivalent of half of Havana's population on a protest march the very day the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation ostensibly relaxing the embargo. But a closer look at the measures contained in an agriculture spending bill makes clear that the easing of the embargo on imports of food and medicine is more symbolic than practical — Cuba would still be denied the credit facilities routinely used by countries trading with the U.S., rendering any new purchases extremely unlikely — and restrictions on Americans traveling to the island have actually been tightened. President Clinton had earlier signaled he'd sign the bill precisely because it doesn't substantially alter the embargo on Cuba, which he said would be a "big mistake."

In truth, the "mistake" to which Clinton alludes probably has more to do with the election than with foreign policy. A neck-and-neck electoral race in Florida has seen both the White House and the Bush campaign dutifully endorsing the embargo to the hilt, but few administration officials speaking off the record are prepared to defend its soundness as a policy, while most of the wise men of Republican administrations past assembled as foreign policy advisers by Governor Bush have called for a review of the embargo. The Clinton administration's previous moves toward relaxing the embargo were torpedoed in 1996 by Havana's shooting down of two civilian aircraft flown by anti-Castro exiles who'd dropped pamphlets on the island. That prompted President Clinton to sign the Helms-Burton Act, which made the embargo an act of Congress rather than simply an executive order. But once electoral concerns recede next year — and if Castro avoids any high-profile outrage — the momentum on the issue is likely to swing back to the agriculture and business groups lobbying Capitol Hill to end the embargo. Until then, expect Castro to rack up the mileage on his running shoes.