Bush and Cuba: Still the Full Moon

September 25, 2007

If I am remembered at all (which isn’t likely), it will probably be for having said in my first op-ed piece in the New York Times after leaving the U.S. Foreign Service back in 1982 that “Cuba seems to have the same effect on American administrations that the full moon once had on werewolves.” Twenty-two years later, that is unchanged. Indeed, as one analyzes the Bush administration’s policies toward Cuba, one imagines a distant (and distinctly irrational) howling!

The cold war is long since over. Our own Pentagon acknowledges that Cuba poses no threat whatsoever to U.S. security. There is no evidence that Cuba is or has been in any way involved with terrorist efforts against the United States. On the contrary, Castro has offered to cooperate fully in the fight against terrorism and even proposed signing agreements to that effect with the United States. But none of that has softened Bush’s approach one bit. Instead, his is the harshest policy yet against the island nation. Bush indeed seems to have entered the White House with the intention of getting rid of the Castro regime, not to negotiate with it or to reach some modus vivendi. As Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega put it to Congress on October 2 last year: “The President is determined to see the end of the Castro regime and the dismantling of the apparatus that has kept him in office for so long.”

This past January, Bush closed all channels for dialogue, even suspending the twice-yearly migration talks. He also appointed a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba to recommend ways, first, of bringing about “an expeditious end of the dictatorship,” and then to develop a plan for assisting the Cuban people in “a post-dictatorship Cuba.”

For 45 years now, Washington has used pressure and threats against Castro. The embargo has been in place for 44 years, travel controls of one kind or another almost as long. So now Bush simply proposes more of the same, only in strengthened doses.

The first thing that must be said is that it won’t work. It takes us in exactly the wrong direction. There is a hard-and-fast rule that no U.S. administration has understood (or at least accepted): the more we threaten and pressure, the more we try to choke Cuba economically, the more defensive will be the reaction of the Cuban government, and the more it will call for greater internal discipline and for all to rally around the flag against the threat from the Colossus of the North. In other words, it leads not to liberalization but to tighter internal controls. We must remember that since at least 1902, when the Platt Amendment turned Cuba into a U.S. protectorate, Cubans have seen the United States as the principal threat to their sovereignty and independence. They react to our policies accordingly.

Secondly, no unilateral embargo in history has ever worked. If a given country can trade with all others in the world save one, its inability to trade with that one is unlikely to cause it grave economic difficulties, much less bring about its collapse. And so it is with Cuba. Cuba’s economic problems are caused far more by Castro’s stubborn refusal to move ahead with reforms leading to a more thoroughly mixed economy. The U.S. embargo simply gives him a convenient scapegoat. “Our economic problems are the fault of the U.S. embargo,” he is wont to say.

We could accomplish so much more by reducing tensions, lifting travel controls so as to encourage more people-to-people contacts and beginning a meaningful dialogue with the Cuban government—a dialogue to discuss our various disagreements and resolve as many of them as we can. At the very least, this approach would do less harm than the increasingly hostile and sterile policy pushed by the Bush administration.

Its objective is to put an end to the Castro regime. As one reads through the Commission’s recommendations (all 500 pages of them), one has the distinct impression that, at least in the minds of Commission members, we are on the verge of attaining that objective and the U.S. occupation of Cuba is about to begin.

A U.S.-appointed “Transition Coordinator” is to be named to run the show, as L. Paul Bremer ran it in Iraq. He apparently will reorganize the economy along capitalist lines, set up the right kind of schools, make the trains run on time and all that sort of thing. Cuban exiles in Miami have already drawn up blueprints as to how a transition will proceed. The Cubans on the island need only follow the blueprint!

But of course before the occupation can begin, the regime must be brought down. And how is that to be accomplished? Certainly not by any of the measures put forward by the Commission. One in particular is already backfiring. It would limit Cuban-Americans to visiting their families on the island only once every three years, rather than annually as permitted until now. And if you visited your mother six months ago but she’s now on her deathbed, tough luck. There is no provision for emergency visits even in case of death or serious illness.

For close-knit Cuban families, this is seen as cruel and unusual punishment. All the more so since it comes at a time when Cuba is relaxing its own rules for family visits. But if the purpose is, as the administration says, to bring down the Castro regime, the whole thing seems a joke. Almost two million foreign tourists traveled to Cuba last year. About 120,000 of them were Cuban-Americans, or about 6%. So even if you reduced that by half, you would only have reduced income from tourism by some 3%. And, in fact, probably not even by that much, because Cuban-Americans will find ways to travel through third countries in great numbers. The reduction will be no more than a minor nuisance to the Cuban government, but it will cause great pain to Cuban-Americans. Where is the sense in that?

Another measure would drastically reduce academic exchanges. This is exactly the wrong thing to do. The United States is supposed to believe in academic freedoms and the free exchange of ideas. How can closing them off be consistent with this? Further, it will have little if any effect economically. Students are not known for spending a lot of money abroad. Neither, I must confess, are their professors. The reduction, then, would appear to be wholly gratuitous and aimed at reducing contacts more than anything else. How is that advancing real U.S. interests?

The administration also speaks of increased support to dissidents as a means of ending the Castro regime. But during recent trips to Cuba I discussed this proposal with leading dissidents and found them all to oppose it. The administration, they note, talks of supporting them, but to date this has actually meant giving money to Miami-based groups, supposedly for channeling into Cuba. In fact, almost all the money remains in Miami. And that is fine with the dissidents, for all those with whom I spoke said they would not accept any funding from the U.S. government. They value their nationalist credentials too much to do so.

In their efforts to expand the parameters for freedom of expression and greater civil rights, the dissidents deserve our moral support and expressions of solidarity. But they do not have, and are not likely to gather, enough strength or following even to think of bringing down the government. Nor, as most see it—including the dissidents themselves—is that their role. The Bush administration’s assertion that increased assistance to the dissidents will help put an end to “the dictatorship” is simply pie in the sky.

Finally, the administration’s new measures call for military aircraft to transmit TV and Radio Martí signals onto the island. This will be expensive and, if done from international airspace, will violate the International Communications Convention. Further, it isn’t likely to have any significant impact. Radio Martí has been broadcasting into Cuba now for some 20 years. It hasn’t appreciably changed public opinion on the island in all that time. In fact, since it moved its operations to Miami (in direct violation of its mandate), it has increasingly come to be seen in Cuba as simply another unreliable exile station and its listenership has dropped off.

The administration’s new measures against Cuba, then, will almost certainly prove a dud. They will accomplish nothing positive. Certainly they will not “bring an end to the Castro regime,” as is their stated objective. Cubans on the island are therefore puzzled as to their real intent. Cuban officials tend to believe that there must be more to it—“the real stuff,” as one put it to me, “the military action” that would be undertaken if Bush is reelected.

Even your average Cuban is concerned. They want change, yes, but not a U.S.-run transition. Especially not as they look at those pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused by U.S. soldiers. Our reputation for nation-building isn’t very good at the moment.

Wayne S. Smith is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. and former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. He was recognized as the State Department’s leading Cuba expert when he left the Foreign Service in 1982 over disagreements with the Reagan Administration.

Tags: George Bush, US foreign policy, Cuba, embargo, cold war

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