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FREDERICKSBURG, Virginia — In his travels around Cuba this week former U.S. President Jimmy Carter will meet a friendly, resilient people who have bravely withstood the stupidity and cruelty that have emanated from both sides of the Straits of Florida.

For more than 40 years, Cuban leader Fidel Castro and the foreign-policy establishment in Washington have been engaged in an absurd dance that has resulted in incalculable — and wholly avoidable — suffering for ordinary Cubans.

On the one hand is the United States, which has always sought to destroy regimes and social movements that challenge U.S. hegemony in Latin America. Ever since Castro rose to power, U.S. policymakers have found in his dictatorship a useful excuse for squeezing Cuba to ensure that it did not develop an appealing alternative to the dependency and subservience that historically have been the fate of Latin American nations.

On the other hand is Castro, who has built a vast police state and followed the Soviet socialist path to economic ruin, but has justified it all by pointing to the belligerent colossus to the north.

And helping to perpetuate this state of affairs — wittingly or not — are rightwing Cuban-Americans who have fought for policies that clearly have benefited Castro and demagogues in Washington, but have served only to make life extremely difficult for people back in Cuba.

Recently, two U.S. Congress members — Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of south Florida — have carried the torch of anti-Castro reaction by urging the Bush administration to refuse Carter permission to travel to Cuba. In a letter to the White House, the representatives accused Carter of “seeking to appease anti-American dictators” and of being “directly responsible for having brought to power the terrorist regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran.”

And now the hard right has ratcheted up its rhetoric to new levels of foolishness by naming Cuba as a potential bioterror threat.

In a speech delivered last Monday titled “Beyond the Axis of Evil,” Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton raised suspicions about activities conducted in Cuba’s highly regarded biomedical facilities — which until now have been known mostly for developing “clot-buster” medicine for heart-attack victims and a new meningitis vaccine that’s scheduled for testing in Europe and eventually in the U.S.

It is a remarkable coincidence that Bolton’s accusations, which happened to be a little thin on supporting evidence, came just before Carter’s high-profile trip to Havana and just as voices both in Washington and in influential business circles are asking more and more why the U.S. insists on maintaining a callous and anachronistic economic embargo against Cuba.

What some people on the U.S. right fail to grasp is that no reasonable person any longer sees Castro as a national-security threat and that using the war on terror to vilify Cuba will earn the U.S. only outrage and ridicule from other nations.

One wonders exactly what drives the far right’s continuing obsession with Castro. While the strongman’s critics (including those in the U.S. government) rightly point out that there are serious human-rights problems in Cuba, their concern about such abuses in the region is more than a little selective.

The human-rights situation in Cuba is not worse than in Colombia, where paramilitaries linked to the armed forces routinely slaughter peasants and labor activists. And Castro’s abuses pale in comparison to what Washington helped unleash on Guatemala, El Salvador and Chile in the 1970s and 1980s.

Unfortunately, Bush, taking his cue from the Cuban-American extremists who are big financial backers of both him and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, wants to maintain Washington’s belligerent posture toward Cuba.

But he’s rowing against the tide of history. Carter’s Cuba visit will help spur further criticism of the Cuba embargo, which Americans of good will increasingly are seeing as a relic of the past.

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