While immigration reform is the acknowledged "third rail" of American politics -- touch it and you immediately anger some constituency -- U.S. policy toward Cuba comes a close second. There are two distinct arguments on how to treat this pesky dictatorship 90 miles from our coast, and proponents of either position pillory anyone who deviates.
Hence the Bush administration has gotten a drubbing from traditional supporters in the Cuban-American community and from anti-embargo advocates for suggesting more nuanced, targeted sanctions.
A little background is in order. Every year, the congressional debate over U.S.-Cuba policy revolves around whether we should tighten sanctions against the regime or lift them altogether. One side believes that pressure alone will cause Fidel Castro to change his dictatorial behavior, while the other thinks a flood of U.S. goods and tourists would cause the regime to lose its grip.
Both arguments are simplistic. The first assumes that withholding U.S. commerce is a powerful enough lever, even though other countries trade with this regime. The second ignores the bearded manipulator who chooses what gets sold where, how many tourists may enter, and when to shut the door.
Meanwhile, U.S. policy has been shifting toward a pragmatic middle course since sanctions were codified and strengthened by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.
In 2000, Congress allowed U.S. agribusinesses to sell food and grain to the Castro regime on a cash-and-carry basis.
In May 2002, the Bush administration proposed a step-by-step approach to lifting the U.S. embargo if Mr. Castro would allow competitive elections and take up labor, human rights and economic reforms.
This year, the President's Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba recommended measures to hasten the end of Mr. Castro's rule, provide humanitarian assistance in a transition environment, encourage a free-market economy and allocate funds to rehabilitate the island's crumbling infrastructure.
In its 423-page report, just 16 pages deal with hardening some aspects of sanctions to ensure U.S. dollars go to Cuban relatives, independent journalists and human rights activists, but not to the regime. But this section has gotten the most notice.
It suggests tighter controls on tourism masquerading as licensed travel, curbing remittances to government officials and Communist Party members and reducing travel opportunities for Cuban-Americans to see family members on the island to curb the activities of certain recent exiles, known as "mules," who have been sent to the United States to carry back money and goods to the regime.
Embargo critics have seized on these recommendations to paint the entire report as an election-year appeal to the Cuban-American community. But some Cuban-Americans complain it thwarts honest efforts to help relatives back home.
The bulk of the commission's tome, which encourages international support for Cuban dissidents and human-rights activists and presents a timely strategy to engage a transition government, has gotten scant notice. Ditto its treasure trove of statistics and assessments of various post-Castro scenarios.
Sadly, the dilemmas inherent in dealing with an island police state may not be fully appreciated by lawmakers, pundits or the American public. Letting U.S. tourists visit Cuba would give Mr. Castro economic strength to tighten his grip over a captive population, but severely restricting travel reduces chances for visitors to slip books and money to dissidents. Limiting remittances may slow the gravy train from exile communities to Cuban officials, but easing limits could help ordinary citizens obtain modest social mobility unattainable by living off rations.
To be sure, the commission's report is a brave step into a gray reality where most American politicians would rather see black or white. To make its recommendations more acceptable, the administration should explain why some restrictions are necessary and work on alternatives to restore contact with ordinary Cubans. To make measures more sensitive and discriminating, the White House must improve lagging intelligence collection on Cuba to know what works, then fine-tune or change strategies as needed.
Above all, patience is key. The goal is not to turn Fidel Castro into a democrat. That will never happen. Instead, America should encourage and support Cuba's growing community of democracy activists, human-rights advocates and independent journalists in their quiet quest to lay a foundation for a new, free Cuba when their aging tyrant loses his magic or meets his maker.
Stephen Johnson is senior policy analyst for Latin America at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Baltimore Sun