CHANGE is in the air across Cuba, and the Bush Administration would be wise to chart a new course to take advantage of a rare opportunity to encourage reform in the island Communist nation.
Since taking up the reins for his ailing brother Fidel, new President Raul Castro has begun to make good on a promise to do away with excessive restrictions.
The government recently ended the ban on Cubans buying and using cell phones.
Cubans will be able to stay at resort hotels, rent automobiles, and use amenities such as hotel gyms that had been reserved for foreign tourists. And Cubans also will be able to buy electric bicycles, DVDs, computers, microwave ovens, and other items that previously had been available only for companies and foreigners.
Certainly, few in Cuba, where the average monthly salary is less that $20, will be able to afford to take advantage of the new freedoms, but that s hardly the point.
Some Cubans do have enough money to pay even $173 a night to stay at Havana s Ambos Mundos hotel, others are already planning to save up for the once-unreachable luxuries, and all will now know that hard work and thrift have their rewards.
More importantly, the changes show that Raul Castro, who is also reforming the agricultural sector to reduce red tape and increase food production, is serious about improving the lot of the Cuban people. His actions should be encouraged.
But if past history is any guide, the Bush Administration won t see this as an opportunity to revise its Cuba policy. Instead, pandering to Florida s Cuban exile community in this election year, the White House is more likely to claim that 50 years of trade restrictions are paying dividends and suggest turning the screws tighter.
As he did as recently as last month, President Bush also may again pledge to help the Cuban people realize the blessings of liberty and insist on democratic reforms before easing economic restrictions.
Democracy, however, is the wrong precondition for change. Improve the economic condition of the Cuban people and they will begin demanding greater freedom without our help. Therefore, the United States should praise Fidel s brother (instead of calling him dictator light ) and resolve to do what we can to facilitate his reform program.
That is the middle path available between those who want to unilaterally end the five-decade-old U.S. embargo and those for whom the only acceptable change in Cuba is the immediate dismantling of the Communist regime. Not taking the middle path will only prolong Cuban suffering.