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Smashing success aren’t two words normally connected with the name of Jimmy Carter. But this time, they should be.

The ex-president’s tour through Cuba was a tour de force, evincing far more courage, integrity and simple honesty than America has come to expect from her politicians. This gentle man, reviled for over two decades by the unthinking right-wing, clearly understands something they don’t and probably never did: that the soul of this country is human rights – the right, not only to be free and speak freely, but also the right to decent health care and social services.

While President Bush cravenly runs for cover in order to milk Florida’s Cuban-American vote for brother Jeb, Carter has the courage to confront Castro on his own turf. In exchange for his visit, Carter demanded – and got – the right to address the Cuban people unedited and right into their living rooms on the state-run television.

With Castro sitting only a few feet away, Carter demanded that the Cuban government grant its people civil rights, elections and amnesty for political prisoners. Probably for the first time, millions of Cubans learned from the ex-president of a petition being circulated demanding these rights and which has already gathered some 11,000 signatures. In my opinion, Carter’s trip may well mark the turning point in the effort to fully democratize Cuba.

You would think that this objective would be cherished by a good “compassionate conservative” like President Bush. Think again. In one of the most discourteous and cynical moves imaginable, Carter’s plane had no sooner left for Havana than the Bush administration brazenly attempted to discredit his trip, by claiming that Cuba was developing biological weapons.

Carter, whatever his faults, probably never told a lie in his life. So when he says that he raised that question with the Bush people before his trip and was told flat out that Cuba did not have any programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, I believe him. If Bush believed that Cuba was such a dire threat, he could have added the country to his so-called Axis of Evil. But he did not. Instead, he waited for the free publicity of Jimmy Carter’s visit, and then launched his vote-pandering scheme on his brother’s behalf.

The hypocrisy of Bush on Cuba is mind-boggling. The day he denounced Fidel as a dictator and a tyrant, sitting two feet away from the president was Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, a first-class autocrat and dictator. And several days before his visit, Bush hosts King Abdullah of Jordan, another one of the Mideast’s mini-Louis XIV’s. Worse, Bush criticizes Castro out of one side of his mouth, and plays footsie with the Chinese on the other – and China’s human-rights abuses make Fidel look like Mother Goose.

But Carter displayed more than just courage. He also had the integrity to say what was right about Cuba – and yes, there are some things that Castro has gotten right. In America, we have 40 million people with no health coverage whatsoever – in Cuba, everyone has health care, and its quality is pretty good by Latin American standards.

And even on the subject of human rights, Cuba may have its political prisoners but we have prisoners too – including hundreds rotting on death row. It seems that every week another person is freed from an American death row after being exonerated. Socrates once said, “Physician, heal thyself.” Americans are the most self-conscious of people, and we should think twice before casting too many stones.

This brings me to the final and most important point about Cuba – lifting an embargo that this country has steadfastly (and stupidly) maintained for over 40 years. And that fact alone – four decades – demonstrates precisely how foolish this policy has become, if it ever made sense. Nine presidents have occupied the White House since the embargo became law, and Castro still rules the island. Conservatives claim to be the party of government efficiency. Well I ask, what on earth is so efficient about a policy that hasn’t made one difference – not one – since it was adopted?

Let’s be honest. We don’t have a policy toward Cuba. What we have is a policy toward Cuban exiles living in Florida. And what’s really sad is that the only way we’ll ever bring about the very changes they say they want is to lift the embargo, and let the sunshine in.

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