(May 14) It wasn’t all that long ago that folks were rushing down to Cuba in hopes of cutting deals with Fidel Castro.

Farm organizations, food exporters, equipment manufacturers and bright-eyed journalists were making the trek. Castro wanted to wheel and deal, particularly for the purchase of American food supplies, and Americans wanted to get in on the gravy.

On May Day of this year, Fidel Castro told a million people gathered in Revolution Square in Havana to get ready for the Yankee invasion. He even suggested the U.S. might hit him with a “smart rocket,” or attack Cuba with weapons of mass destruction.

He said la lucha, the struggle, would go on and Cubans would fight in the streets and on the beaches. It was a speech echoing Churchill’s famously defiant words in World War II. Castro went on to blast what he called “the Nazi Bush” and the “Fascist mob in Miami,” referring to the Cuban community in Florida.

So much for friendly relations with the U.S. and the desire for trade. Castro admitted that Cuba had gone through a period when it did not have enough food. He called it a severe decline in nutrition. Those who really know Castro and his regime believe he cares little about trade. What he really wants are credits so he can use U.S. money to buy U.S. food and products. The U.S. has blocked those credits.

This column predicted the cozy period with Castro wouldn’t last long. He is the last of the old hard-liners, and he can’t really change after 40 years. However, he is a lot smarter than most of his adversaries and would-be allies, and he has the power to charm the spots off the leopards and the common sense out of a lot of Yankee traders.

This column also has a theory that states the further one lives from Castro, the less undesirable he appears. By the time you get to New England, Canada or Seattle, Castro seems only to be an aging reformer who gives everybody health care and makes the trains run on time. This is true of most dictators: They all do some really great things in exchange for giving up all basic human freedoms. There was zero unemployment under Hitler, and massive public projects in Germany, including superhighways unmatched in the U.S. until 30 years later. But, of course, what the Great Leader gives he can take away at a moment’s notice.

It really does no good to condemn those who want desperately to wheel and deal with Castro. They are always with us, always terminally gullible. They always say that embargoes and hostility don’t work and that we are hurting the Cuban people. Excuse me. It seems that a regime of constant revolution, paranoia, dictatorship, denial of human rights and disastrous economic theories might just do a little damage to the Cuban people. Maybe I’m missing something.

But the U.S. also is acting irrationally these days in its international relations. Trade policies and economic interests seem to have taken a back seat as we rush around the world to look in every cave. The U.S. faced down Hitler, the Japanese warlords, Stalin, the old Soviet Empire, Chairman Mao’s China. Why should we become obsessed with terrorists, who can hit us, but who have no power to hurt us strategically?

Yet we are ignoring our trade arrangements, demanding absolute loyalty from friends and letting relationships with Canada, Mexico, Europe and Asia deteriorate. We don’t know whether homeland security is going to do serious damage to the economy. Finally, Tom Ridge, the security chief, says he is willing to talk about the economic impact of homeland security measures. That’s at least encouraging.

It may not do much to assist the travel, tourism, hotel and restaurant industries that are suffering mightily. These industries are hit by a perfect economic storm: terrorism, war, infectious disease and economic stagnation. A lot of restaurants are closing and have laid off thousands of workers. A hotel manager talks about the last-minute cancellation of a banquet for 3,000 people. That cost more than $200,000 for food, drink and entertainment, plus lost work for 210 waiters and 80 chefs.

Dining out brings in an incredible $1.2 billion a day. But people are spending less. Foreign and domestic tourists, who represent 40% of the business for fine dining, are staying put. A decline in restaurant and hotel business hurts workers at the lower end of the economic scale. Joseph Sternberg of the National Restaurant Association points out that dining establishments employ 11 million workers.

Many in the travel business say policies are scaring people away, including foreign visitors. Fear is a disincentive to spending.

“Security is hurting us,” says Paul Ruder of the American Society of Travel Agents.

Congress is beginning to recognize the fear factor in the economy. The Commerce Department wants to spend $50 million overseas to encourage travel to the U.S.

But there is some doubt this will work unless the U.S. “puts on a friendlier face.” We also may have to act more cooperatively if we are to get trade negotiations back on track. Old hard-liner Castro has his paranoia in Cuba. We don’t need to match him with our own paranoia. We are a free and open society where business operates freely. If we clamp all this down, then the terrorists win without lighting a single fuse.