If Iraq is understandably the current focus of the Bush administration's foreign policy, the president is not overlooking an irritant in America's back yard, namely Cuba and its communist leader, Fidel Castro.

President Bush has just taken steps to stiffen his anti-Castro policy. This puts him at odds with some members of Congress as well as business leaders who favor a policy of relaxation, but does him no political harm with many Cuban-Americans in Florida, a state important in his re-election campaign.

After a review of the Cuban situation by a presidential commission, Bush has issued some significant directives.

One is that the United States will work to prevent Raul Castro from succeeding his older brother, which would continue a communist dictatorship. The United States will fund programs to support Cuban dissidents and democracy and human rights in Cuba.

A second is to deploy a specially equipped C-130 aircraft in international airspace around Cuba that would broadcast to Cubans the Spanish-language programs of Radio Marti and TV Marti, thus eluding the Castro regime's attempts at jamming them. Radio Marti and TV Marti are U.S. government stations that broadcast uncensored news to Cuba. Cuba's own media are censored.

A third initiative is a restriction of dollar remittances from the United States to Cuba, which the Castro regime uses to obtain hard currency and to bolster its ailing economy.

Such money has been used by Cubans to shop in special dollar-only stores carrying items not available elsewhere. The communist government last week abruptly "closed for inventory" the dollar-only stores amid furious denunciations of the Bush decrees.

It has not been a good month for Castro. He also suffered a falling out with Mexico, which has generally been cordial to the Cuban leader. But with the accession to power of President Vicente Fox, Mexico has attached greater significance to human rights and last month cast a critical vote against Cuba at the annual meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Despite his well-documented abuse of human rights in Cuba, Castro has long been sensitive to international criticism in this regard and has gone to great diplomatic lengths to fend off negative U.N. resolutions. This time around, a resolution deploring Castro's jailing of 75 dissidents earlier this year, and asking him to admit a U.N. human rights inspector to Cuba, passed 22 votes to 21.

After Mexico's adverse vote, Castro denounced his former ally. Mexico recalled its ambassador from Cuba and expelled Cuba's ambassador. Mutual recriminations flew between the two countries, including Mexican charges of Cuban meddling in its internal affairs.

As one of the last in a declining list of communist leaders, Castro has long fomented mischief in other countries, usually, but not always, Latin. Cuban forces have been dispatched in the past to Grenada and as far afield as Angola.

Currently Castro is enjoying a close relationship with Venezuela's controversial leader, Hugo Chavez. Venezuela is oil-rich and is important to the United States, supplying around 13 percent of its imported oil. But Chavez has presided over the disintegration of his country's economy and speaks with a revolutionary fervor akin to Castro's. He has become a benefactor of Castro, supplying him with subsidized oil that Cuba has needed to keep its economy limping along since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of its massive subsidies.

Informed sources say that Castro is supplying Venezuela with Cuban advisers and military officers who assume fake Venezuelan identities — which sometimes leads to tension between the Cubans and Venezuelan soldiers. This tension may have been connected to a curious fire at Fuerto Mara in the Maracaibo region of Venezuela last month, in which two soldiers died and eight were arrested.

All this gives the Bush administration little reason to be fond of Chavez. Additional cause for concern is Venezuela's long frontier with neighboring Colombia and the prospect of sanctuary in Venezuela for guerrillas battling the Colombian regime.

As for Castro, the commission's report, on which Bush's recommendations are based, says that it is the "historical role" of the United States to support the Cuban people's aspirations to hasten the day they can "restore their country to a respected, peaceful, and constructive role in the international community."

The commission is coy about "predicting exactly" what form a transition in Cuba will take. But clearly, the Bush administration is eager for an end to Cuba's internal oppression and its external aggressiveness.


John Hughes is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News. He was associate director of USIA and director of the Voice of America in the Reagan administration. He also is a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column. E-mail: hughes@desnews.com