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Every four years things get dicey for the rest of the world. The United States holds a presidential election, and that makes it hard for the 800-pound gorilla to conduct a rational foreign policy.

The latest example of Washington's election-year mindlessness is its stance toward poor, hungry, communist-ridden Cuba. When we should be offering hope to Cubans, we are preparing to make their lives worse.The reasons are Washington's obsession with Fidel Castro and attempts by the Democratic and Republican parties to capture the Cuban-American vote.

It appears that Congress and the White House have overlooked a sea of change: With the demise of the Soviet Union and its support for Cuba, Castro has been deflated. The former scourge of "yanqui imperialism" is a minor nuisance.

Formerly, with his Soviet weaponry and his moves to export revolution to Latin America, Castro was a credible threat to U.S. interests. It made sense for Washington to clamp on a trade embargo: One doesn't help a self-proclaimed enemy.

But today the hemisphere knows that Cuba's economic and medical and educational advances floated on a sea of Soviet subsidies. Without them, after 33 years of one-man rule, Castro cannot adequately feed and clothe his subjects. His centralized system is no other country's model.

Nevertheless, a bill is racing through Congress to tighten the 30-year embargo. It would bar foreign subsidiaries of U.S. firms from trading with Cuba, which they now can do. It would even halt sales of food and medicine.

This so-called Cuban Democracy Act is sponsored by Rep. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., who may think he helps Cubans by making them hungrier. More likely, he is toadying to his district's Cuban exiles.

Bill Clinton, who is smart enough to know better, backs the bill. And Bush, who detests congressional meddling in foreign affairs, also has signed on.

Does anyone really believe a harsher embargo will unhorse Castro? If so, they fail to understand his ruthless police state. Traditionally, he has used U.S. hostility to justify his despotism.

Fortunately, no matter how badly the great minds on Capitol Hill mess up, Castro's brutal regime is coming to an end. But one should not count on its collapsing in an uprising by a population made miserable by sanctions.