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A U.S. diplomat invites Cuban dissidents into his home. Cuba President Fidel Castro calls the dissidents "mercenaries" of the "Bush/Hitler-like regime" and imprisons 78 of them, some for as long as 28 years each.

For three black Cubans who hijack a Havana ferry in a desperate attempt to reach U.S. shores, it's death by firing squad, but we don't hear a peep from civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson or any other black U.S. leaders who would normally cry racism. Cuba predictably blames its carnage on Uncle Sam. There are protests the world over, even from several of Castro's old commie friends.

The U.S. government weighs its options. It expels 14 Cuban diplomats -- a record -- for spying. Round and round we go in this tit-for-tat diplomacy.

Will Cuba kick out James Cason, our man in Havana? Will the United States keep selling any Cuba assets that arrive on our shores?

It's another subplot in this 44-year-old power play. The U.S. government has been auctioning off hijacked planes that arrive in Miami to pay a Cuban-American woman who, by court decree, is entitled to big bucks from the Cuban government for having been jilted by her husband, who turned out to be a Cuban spy who infiltrated exile groups. Talk about government policy wrapped in the wrath of a woman scorned.

Will there be another raft crisis as Cuba's bankrupt communist economy continues to struggle? Will Cuba's dissident movement be revived after this latest crackdown? Will Europe and Latin America make Cuba accountable for its human-rights violations?

The hard-liners in the exile community want the Bush administration to end direct flights and put a stop to $1 billion a year that Cuban-Americans send to their relatives on the island. The moderates want to leave the family contacts alone and offer more help to what's left of the dissident movement and expansion of Radio and TV Marti, whose signals constantly get jammed by the Cuban government. The liberals and farm-state conservatives in Congress are actually talking about ending the travel ban on Cuba, as if the communist government should be rewarded with tourists after this latest crackdown on dissent.

President Bush will spell out what his administration plans to do. The wisest course would leave U.S. policy alone and concentrate diplomatic efforts on nations in Europe and Latin America that now trade with Cuba without regard to its dismal human-rights record.

Tightening the U.S. embargo by making family remittances or direct travel to Cuba illegal would only encourage people to go through third countries to reach family. Most Cuban-Americans want more family contacts, not less.

No, the best U.S. course is to focus on Mexico, Chile, Spain, France, Italy, Canada and all the other countries with businesses on the island. Most of their leaders, including Mexico's President Vicente Fox, already have given the dissidents credibility by meeting with them while visiting the island. European diplomats in Havana, particularly those from Spain, often invite dissidents to partake in their national celebrations. That has put Cuban officials on notice that creating a civil society that values diverse viewpoints is not a U.S.-manufactured plot but a universal goal, spelled out in the United Nations' own declaration of human rights.

If Bush focuses on what's best for the Cuban people, he would mount a diplomatic campaign for the European Union and the Organization of American States to put pressure on Cuba and free the dissidents.

Cuba's crackdown on dissent merits more than world condemnation, more than protests against the communist regime in Spain or France or, as are planned for this weekend, in New York and Washington. The Europeans and Latin Americans wield the big stick of trade if they care to use it. If not now, then when?

Orlando Sentinel

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