By Javier Corrales

Javier Corrales is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center and an assistant professor of political science at Amherst College. This op-ed article is reprinted with permission from The New York Times.

January 1, 2001--Today the Cuban regime celebrates its 42nd anniversary. Soon it will mark another milestone: surviving nine American presidents without showing any signs of democratization. Will the Cuban regime remain unchanged through the administration of another American president? The answer depends on the conservatives both in Cuba and in the United States.

The resistance of the Cuban system to political reform is remarkable. In the 1990s, Fidel Castro's government faced what would seem to be inexorable pressure for reform: the extinction of its patron (the Soviet bloc), the collapse of its economy (a 40 percent contraction from 1989 to 1994), an avalanche of Western tourists reminding Cubans of their deprivation, declining labor productivity and a historic papal admonition. And yet, the regime endures.

The longevity of the United States embargo against Cuba is similarly remarkable. Although embargoes against tyrannies are customary in American foreign policy, those that last four decades, as this one has, are rare. It has survived despite mounting political pressure against it in the 1990s. Pressure now comes in part from groups dear to Republican interests: agribusinesses, biotechnology companies, financial firms and even some Cuban-American groups in Florida. A proposal to create a bipartisan commission to review the embargo was signed by 24 senators, including 16 Republicans, but this initiative failed, and the embargo survived.

In the face of pressure to liberalize in the early 1990s, Mr. Castro sought the support of the most risk-averse, die-hard members of the ruling party, the duros, who hated glasnost and perestroika when those ideas were in vogue in the Soviet world. His decision to side with the duros has left Cuban politics frozen in time.

The American government's response to Cuba over the past four decades has remained similarly tough. President Clinton has softened the embargo by increasing people-to- people contacts, and Congress approved limited sales of food and pharmaceuticals to Cuba this year. But these changes in policy have not weakened the resolve of conservatives in Congress who support the ongoing embargo. In fact, many embargo supporters are convinced that efforts to draw Cuba out of its isolation, like Canada's policy of increasing business ventures and Latin America's policy of diplomatic inclusion, have failed. They rightly point out that the Cuban regime has become more repressive since 1994.

President-elect George Bush may feel it would be politically difficult to press for liberalization of this policy. After all, the costs of forgoing normal relations with Cuba are not high. Neither our economy nor our national security will improve significantly by normalized ties with Cuba. The seemingly low geopolitical value of Cuba, together with Mr. Bush's own desire to shore up his conservative support, could cause him to leave Cuba policy to the conservatives of his party.

Yet one can imagine a different outcome. Mr. Bush could tell his conservative allies that change was inevitable, that if he did not sponsor it, the business and humanitarian groups pushing to end the embargo would yield more than necessary.

Rather than a full repeal of the embargo — which would amount to an excessive accommodation to a dictatorship — Mr. Bush could push for repeal of the 1996 Helms-Burton law, which toughened the embargo in two regrettable ways. First, it internationalized the embargo by allowing the United States to penalize foreign companies for operating properties in Cuba that had been previously owned by Americans. Second, it shifted power to alter the embargo from the president to Congress. This policy is unnecessarily irritating to our allies and unwisely reduces the power of the executive branch — now in Republican hands — over foreign policy.

Returning control over the embargo to the White House could give Mr. Castro and the duros incentive to negotiate with Mr. Bush. The result might be an exchange of concessions, and perhaps the beginnings of real political reform. Mr. Bush should argue to Congressional conservatives that his administration is more likely to outsmart the Castro regime than a divided and interest-group-dominated Congress. He might even remind them of Richard Nixon's policy of engagement with China, which conservatives now consider one of their smartest moves during the Cold War.

Mr. Bush has a chance to break with the past. He has the conservative credentials to alter Cuba policy, and perhaps the vision to do it.