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    History Lessons on Cuba for a New President
    Published: January 3, 2009

    I first set foot in Havana 30 years ago because Jimmy Carter thought he
    could end the tensions that had torn apart millions of families,
    including my own. It seemed like a new beginning, but it turned out to
    be more of the same old story about Cuba and the United States.

    Time and again Fidel Castro has taken an American overture or challenge
    and, using a Fidelista jujitsu, turned it to his own advantage. In the
    process, countless families like mine have been whipsawed between hope
    and despair.

    Mr. Castro's enduring tactic has been to fit each initiative to his
    revolutionary script of a brave Cuba resisting the giant United States.
    Framed that way, attempts to bring down the regime strengthened it.
    Efforts to democratize Cuba left freedoms further restricted. Presidents
    came and went, but the constants were disappointment, and Fidel.

    Now with Mr. Castro ailing and a new president about to be inaugurated —
    the eleventh to hold office since Havana fell 50 years ago this month —
    another match in this long competition is about to begin.

    The half-century has been a roller coaster for Cuba and the United
    States. Dwight Eisenhower was quick to recognize Mr. Castro's
    government, and quick to slam shut the diplomatic door. John Kennedy got
    stung at the Bay of Pigs. Lyndon Johnson was uninterested in negotiating
    with Castro; so was Richard Nixon until his opening to China made him
    and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, think they could do
    something similar with Cuba. Mr. Kissinger tried, and continued under
    President Ford, but got nowhere.

    In all that time, my wife, Miriam, who had left at age 10 in the
    tumultuous months between the Bay of Pigs and the 1962 missile crisis,
    had little contact with her family in Cuba. A phone call was near
    impossible, and sending anything by mail was a test of patience and
    luck. But soon after President Carter took office, he opened a United
    States Interests Section in Havana and allowed Cuba to do the same in
    Washington. That's where we went in 1978 for visas so Miriam could visit
    her father for the first time since 1962, and I could see Cuba too.

    The ferocious tension of the past seemed to have abated when we reunited
    with her family at José Martí Airport, and Miriam, now married, could
    hug her father one last time. There were other reasons for hope. Mr.
    Castro had released some 3,500 political prisoners and promised to make
    it easy for some Cubans to leave. We filled out immigration papers for
    Miriam's younger brother. Maybe the worst was over.

    But it wasn't. Mr. Castro, flush with Soviet aid, had tens of thousands
    of troops (including Miriam's stepbrother) in Angola and was itching to
    get into Ethiopia. Robert A. Pastor, President Carter's national
    security adviser for Latin America, warned Mr. Castro that entering
    Ethiopia would end further normalization.

    Mr. Castro sent troops anyway. As relations deteriorated, he accused
    Washington of reneging on immigration promises, and threw open the port
    of Mariel along with prisons, hospitals and insane asylums. More than
    120,000 refugees landed on Florida's shores, backing the United States
    into taking them all.

    Mr. Pastor told me there was a lesson in this: that President-elect
    Barack Obama's promises to move toward normalization if Cuba
    democratizes probably won't work, because Mr. Castro has never accepted
    that equation. "We long ago overestimated how important normalization
    and lifting the embargo were for Castro, and we're still doing it," he
    said. The threat, real or invented, of United States attacks has been a
    central element of Mr. Castro's revolutionary identity, and the embargo
    his call to arms.

    In that 1978 trip we saw the price Cubans pay under the embargo. When we
    departed, we took only the clothes we wore. We left everything else,
    including our suitcases, which the family bartered for food.

    We next saw Cuba in the mid-1990s. The cold war was over. Washington's
    objectives of halting Mr. Castro's military adventures and his
    revolution's spread had been reached.

    But instead of seeking reconciliation, George H. W. Bush had tightened
    the embargo further. And he signed into law a Congressional initiative
    seeking democratic change in Cuba after Bill Clinton, while campaigning
    in South Florida to replace him, came out for a tough Cuba policy.

    Mr. Castro also managed to turn this challenge to his advantage. Citing
    the Soviet collapse, he introduced a "special period" of sacrifice and
    rationing. We heard of families cooking grapefruit rind in place of
    beef. Mr. Castro blamed Washington's embargo, and American allies
    criticized the Cuban Democracy Act because it sought to restrict their
    trade with Cuba.

    President Clinton eventually moved toward easing tensions. But Mr.
    Castro denied him an opening. In 1996, he ordered jets to shoot down
    unarmed planes piloted by the Cuban refugee group "Brothers to the
    Rescue." That backed Mr. Clinton into supporting the Helms-Burton Act,
    which further tightened the embargo. Mr. Castro had the law distributed
    to Cubans and pointed out parts giving Cuban-Americans the right to sue
    in America to reclaim property Cuba had nationalized. Ten years later,
    when I knocked on the door of Miriam's old house, seeking to take a
    picture, the residents feared I was there to reclaim it.

    In 2004, George W. Bush took his turn at getting tough with Mr. Castro,
    severely restricting family travel and limiting family remittances. The
    regime didn't budge, but some Cubans became even more desperate to take
    to the sea in flimsy rafts to escape. One of Miriam's stepbrothers was
    among them. His body was never recovered.

    As Havana commemorates the 50 years since Mr. Castro's victory, and
    Washington prepares to inaugurate Mr. Obama — the first president born
    after the rebels took control — Cuba still belongs to Fidel. He is a
    sick, 82-year-old man who has formally handed power to his brother Raúl,
    but still writes rambling columns in the Communist Party newspaper
    Granma. Brian Latell, a Cuba expert and former C.I.A. analyst, says
    Fidel Castro remains "pathologically hostile" to the United States.

    Raúl Castro has said he is willing to meet with President Obama, and
    last month he offered to bend to Washington's desire for a release of
    political prisoners. But Raúl seems to have learned some of his older
    brother's moves. He demanded that the United States free five convicted
    Cuban spies in exchange. He calls that "gesto por gesto" — gesture for
    gesture — and it is widely assumed to be his blueprint for relations
    with Washington.

    If this is a hint of what is to come, families caught in the middle,
    like ours, can only wait to see which country grabs the advantage first,
    and which keeps it.

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