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Out of America: Defeated Cuba needs kindness from Clinton

WASHINGTON - Are the barricades at last starting to crumble in the irrelevant epilogue to the Cold War, currently being enacted across the waters of the Straits of Florida?

Glance at the public postures of the US and Cuba, and you would assume otherwise. Havana may be on its economic knees; but last October, and despite the hostility of every other UN member except Israel and Romania, the US gratuitously stiffened its 30-year-old trade embargo against the Fidel Castro regime. The Miami-based Radio Marti, ostensibly controlled by the federal government but in practice dominated by Cuban exiles, still noisily broadcasts freedom's gospel to the island. For months, the two countries have been waging arcane war over proposals to improve telephone services between Cuba and the mainland.

To one like myself, who from a ringside seat in Moscow watched the resolution of the real Cold War, the language emanating from Mr Castro and his henchmen is wearily familiar. The exhortations 'to perfect socialism' are a straight lift from the Mikhail Gorbachev lexicon of political wishful thinking. The reforms they have in mind, including a limited dose of private enterprise, a fresh experiment with farmers' markets, and now legalisation of the US dollar, no less, may be heralded as 'changes in order to survive'.

They are in fact the sort of changes which hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union. But behind facades polished by three decades of enmity, glaciers may be melting. They are not so much the glaciers holding a bankrupt regime in a timewarp, as Havana this week went through the motions of celebrating the 40th anniversary of a revolution dated from the failed attack by Mr Castro and his followers on a barracks in Santiago de Cuba on 26 July 1953 - but those which really matter, here in the United States.

One tangible sign was this month's visit by a semi-official American delegation to open an informal line of communication between the Cuban and US military establishments. Another is the pressure in Congress to halve the dollars 16m ( pounds 10.7m) annual funding of Radio Marti and end all support for its sister TV station (which in any case has been comprehensively jammed by the Cubans ever since it went on the air three years ago). Most telling of all, however, is the growing split within the exile community in Miami and in the ranks of the potent Cuban-American lobby, whose hardline views held hostage a succession of Republican presidents. No longer. Not only is a Democrat in the White House. An increasingly vocal lobby, led by an organisation called Cambio Cubano, or Cuban Change, believes that such is the island's plight, common humanity, if nothing else, dictates a new start.

The next move is up to the administration. During the campaign, candidate Clinton went along with a tighter embargo; given his foreign policy inexperience, and the electoral importance of Florida, he was in no position to do otherwise. But today such considerations look threadbare. Mr Clinton became President despite losing Florida. And once it lost its dollars 4bn of annual aid from Moscow, a penniless Cuba was economically doomed, with or without an embargo by the US. Just like sanctions on Haiti, the restrictions have been punishing not so much a repressive regime as the ordinary people condemned to endure it.

Thus far, preoccupied with its domestic economic plans and events in Russia and the ex-Yugoslavia, the White House has given little visible thought to the looming foreign crisis on its southern doorstep. But it had better do so, fast. The story could lead tomorrow's newscasts, it may be months away yet; but sooner or later the Castro era will be over, and the last thing Washington needs is violent upheaval 90 miles away from the Florida Keys. The case for kindness, for whatever ensures a peaceful transition, is surely overwhelming.

Nationalism has played at least as strong a part as ideology in Cuba's fraught relationship with the superpower to the north. By permitting his own citizens to own and spend dollars sent back by relatives in the US, Mr Castro will effectively have hauled up one white flag. There are other reciprocal gestures Mr Clinton could make - for instance, closure of the strategically valueless and politically provocative US base at Guantanamo Bay. But to lift the embargo would strip Mr Castro of his strongest argument, that his country's woes are Yanqui-made.

Bill Clinton is constantly under fire for going back on campaign promises. But Cuba is a case where a reversal would be beneficial to all concerned. America's economic and ideological war with its southern neighbour has long since been won. In victory, generosity is foresight - or as a French politician once immortally remarked of a beaten rival, 'On ne tire pas sur une ambulance' ('You don't fire at an ambulance'). In this case, the patient is already in the hospital life-support unit. For the US to keep up the fire is both dangerous and demeaning.