THE WASHINGTON POST                                                          Monday, December 27, 2004

Dealing With Cuba's Grinch

Marcela Sanchez


y mom arrived early for Christmas this year, three weeks ahead of time in fact. Her visit is something of a holiday ritual, and while it and the nature of mother-daughter dynamics do elicit some tension in our home, I'm grateful she is here.

I'm even more thankful when I consider how petty my concerns seem in comparison with those of people who cannot be with loved ones this season, separated as they are by distance, commitments and even by the whims of a tyrant.

Hilda Molina was one of
Cuba's leading brain surgeons when she turned against the Cuban government in 1995, accusing it of trying to make a business of selling fetal brain tissue to foreigners suffering from Parkinson's disease. Molina resigned her seat in parliament and her membership in the Communist Party in protest. For nearly a decade, she has vainly requested permission to visit her son and his family in Argentina, which has no travel restrictions to and from the island.

Gloria Amaya is the mother of Miguel, Ariel and Guido Sigler Amaya, three of the now famous 75 peaceful pro-democracy activists whose arrest and sentencing 20 months ago by the Castro government provoked the ire of the world. The brothers were charged with undermining "the Cuban socio-political project" by running an independent medical facility out of one of their homes. Because they dared treat the poor of a small town in Cuba with drugs manufactured in the United Sates, Fidel Castro keeps them in jail and their families apart.

There has been no lack of international solidarity shown to those like the Molina and Amaya families. And both the hard-line and what is sometimes called soft diplomatic strategies employed by the international community have elicited responses from Castro -- but not the kind that have significantly mitigated the plight of Cuban dissidents.

Argentine President Nestor Kirchner would like to believe that a policy of engagement is the way to soften Castro. Early this year, when the United Nations voted to censure Castro for his dreadful human rights record, Argentina abstained.

But when the opportunity came to cash in on the soft approach, Castro did not respond in kind. Despite diplomatic efforts that included a personal letter from Kirchner asking Castro for a simple "humanitarian gesture," to let Molina visit her son and meet her Argentinean grandchildren, Castro refused. According to Molina, an immigration officer told her she couldn't leave Cuba because her "brain is a national patrimony."

Washington rejects soft diplomacy, of course. Those who attempt to engage Castro run the risk of "humiliating themselves" or appearing "complicit" in Castro's abusive regime, said Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere.

If the State Department thought there was a remote chance for a compromise, a U.S. official said last week, it would try it. But Castro leaves the Bush administration no option but the hard line. The result is a virtual stalemate that has put Washington in the unfortunate position of keeping or strengthening harsh policies -- including new travel restrictions to the island that also keep families apart this holiday season.

Tragically, this is the nature of policy with a tyrant. Unable to deal substantively with Castro, foreign leaders are constantly pushed to the fringes, so far away from any truly effective interaction or policymaking that what does occur borders on absurdity.

Most recently, Washington and Havana have been engaged in a battle over Christmas lights. The head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, James Cason, has decked the grounds with a flashy display that includes a snowman, a Santa Claus and a huge number 75, a not-so-subtle reminder of the most recent victims of Castro's repression. Castro retaliated by placing billboards near the Interests Section with images of Abu Ghraib, swastikas and a "Made in the USA" sign.

In the most absurd of all outcomes, the Argentine government opted not to recall its ambassador to Cuba for consultations on the best way to repudiate Castro's inflexibility over Molina. Instead, Kirchner fired the ambassador and the foreign ministry's chief of staff.

Molina, Amaya and their loved ones are all pawns in a game that Castro has had more than four decades to master. Their stories and the stories of those who intend to help them remind us that there remains within our midst a type of injustice we seem impotent to confront