In late October, Cuban President Fidel Castro led an anti-American demonstration in Havana that underscored everything wrong with current U.S. policy. The protest was aimed at new U.S. legislation that supposedly would loosen the trade embargo by allowing direct sales of U.S.-produced foodstuffs and medicines to Cuba. But due to last-minute political wrangling, the bill, which was signed into law by President Clinton on October 28, instead ended up prohibiting any direct U.S. financing for those deals, thus making it virtually impossible for them to happen. An outraged Castro announced that Cuba would not do any business with the United States under those terms.

The strong Cuban-American anti-Castro faction in the United States was ecstatic. Once again they had managed to manipulate the legislative process to their own narrow-minded, selfish gain. Instead of loosening trade restrictions, the law ended up making them tougher at the same time as tightening travel rules to Cuba. The outcome this time was all the more bitter because the original bill would have produced a significant step on the road to ending the embargo.

When are we going to learn? The street scene in Havana proved just how miscast our policy has become. The revised bill allowed Castro to continue the fiction that the United States is the root of all of Cuba's troubles. It gives him a bogeyman, something that conveniently serves as an outlet for the frustrations and deprivations felt by the Cuban people. Without the United States, the only explanation for Cuba's depleted situation would be Castro's failed policies.

Over the years, anyone who argued that the embargo should be lifted has been branded a communist sympathizer, a naïve dupe of Castro or just antidemocratic. But those charges mask the reality of what American policy can accomplish. In the case of every other communist nation, from the old Soviet Union, to China, Vietnam, and now North Korea, we have successfully implemented a policy of "constructive engagement." In every case, the policy has either ended up with the dismantling of the communist system, or significant changes in those societies. But with Cuba, we still adhere to a policy of isolation, with a dose of outdated Cold War aggression thrown in for good measure.

There's no reason for this idiocy. America learned about the deep intransigence of the anti-Castro exiles during the Elián González debacle. They are never going to change their stripes. They have only one desire: the absolute and total destruction of Fidel Castro. It is a hatred that rivals the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the Muslims and the Jews in the Middle East. And, some of those anti-Castro exiles have never been reluctant to use extreme measures to intimidate, and manipulate, the decision-makers in Washington.

It should be clear by now that American's Cuba policy isn't about defeating communism anymore. If it were, we would unleash our most powerful weapon against Fidel and his bureaucracy -- the incredible economic might of free trade and free access to Cuba for Americans. Instead, we play into the hands of extremists on both sides by continuing to implement a policy that has failed for nearly 40 years to produce any significant reform in Cuba.

It's time for a real change.