THE ULTIMATE idiocy of the stay-the-course-in-Cuba crowd was displayed Wednesday on CNN.

Asked why she so vehemently opposes any initiative to normalize relations with Cuba, CNN commentator Ana Navarro gave us this gem:

"For no other reason than the calendar," she said. "We're so close, 55 years closer, and now [Obama] does this."

Her point, and the misguided point of our irrational, inconsistent, duplicitous and counterproductive Cuban policy for the last five decades, is that our breakthrough is just a body bag away. With Fidel about to die, she said, and Raul's state funeral to follow shortly thereafter, Cuba will cast off communism and embrace democracy.

But common Cubans have never embraced communism. Communism is a paternalistic, elitist ideology imposed by dictators. Like the masses in every communist country since the Bolsheviks turned out the czar, most Cubans have never been party members or true believers.

But to believe that Castro's death will make us, by default, the choice of Cuba's people ignores our long history of indifference to their plight.

Where were we when Sgt. Fulgencio Batista promoted himself to commander-in-chief and divided Cuba up among his friends and family? Today, we offer democracy, albeit from afar. But democracy was a nonstarter in U.S. policy toward Cuba back then.

We want the Cubans to remember our words and forget our deeds. We want them to believe our platitudes about justice and ignore the fact that we use part of their island to imprison people without trials and to violate the international conventions against torture that we authored. That's a contradiction that can't be explained from afar.

Can we make them forget the past and buy the promise?

We can, and we will.

But not by holding them hostage to the disproportionate political power of a dying population of Cuban exiles, many of whom actually fled Cuba under Batista and not Castro.

Make no mistake: Castro, with his repressive brand of communism, is the chief cause of Cuba's misery. But we have deepened their despair with a foreign policy so draconian and so internally inconsistent that Cubans who might be inclined to turn to us wouldn't know how.

We turned back a Russian armada that tried to arm the Cubans with missiles in 1962 in what was clearly a Russian provocation. But we maintain an embassy in Moscow and cut ties with Havana.

In 1992, we normalized relations with Vietnam, where 58,000 of our young people died fighting the communist regime with which we now do a brisk trade.

But in that same year, we passed the so-called Cuban Democracy Act applying a chokehold on Cuba's economy. Former New Jersey Sen. Robert Torricelli claimed that it would topple Castro "within weeks."

The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 tightened the embargo. Sen. Jesse Helms, then on the verge of the senility that marked his last years in office, called it the "Farewell Fidel" act. That, too, was designed to bring down the Castro regime.

I have traveled to Cuba twice since then, and the only things I can see that we have brought down are the living conditions of an impoverished people who have Castro's foot on their backs and ours on their necks.

But a change is coming, and we don't have to wait for the wake to see it. President Obama's overture is an important first step. It comes right out of the Nixon playbook. Republicans embraced constructive engagement when Nixon extended himself to the Chinese communists.

Today, many of them are willing to cast aside their own principles to stake out any anti-Obama position. But it won't work this time.

They may move to block the confirmation of a diplomat or to block the funds needed to expand our diplomatic ties with Cuba. But the Marco Rubios and Robert Menendezes of the world can hold their breaths until they're blue in the face. This train has left the station.

A Washington Post-ABC poll as far back as 2009 found that two-thirds of the American people supported restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba. In 2012, Obama won the Cuban-American vote, albeit by a razor-thin 2-percent margin. He won Florida twice after loosening travel restrictions.

We vote with our feet, too. Nearly 600,000 Americans traveled to Cuba last year. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a wellspring of GOP campaign funds, has enthusiastically endorsed the president's move.

If we want Cubans to see us for the freedom-loving proponents of democracy that we so often are, we need to engage them, not starve them into submission.

If not, we will abandon the field to the next tin-pot dictator.

Again.

Elmer Smith is a retired Daily News columnist.