Clinton's Cuba Calculus

September 25, 2007


While recent events provided Clinton with an opportunity to fundamentally rethink U.S. policy, he let the moment slip by. Instead, U.S. policy toward Cuba continues to be held hostage to two domestic political concerns: money and votes.

By Phillip Brenner and Peter Kornbluh

On April 17–by coincidence the 34th anniversary of Cuba's victory over a U.S.-backed invasion force at the Bay of Pigs–Undersecretary of State Peter Tarnoff flew to Toronto to meet with one of Fidel Castro's most trusted officials, Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, the president of Cuba's National Assembly. The explosive politics surrounding any high-level contacts between Washington and Havana required that the meeting be held in utmost secrecy. Within the U.S. Government "the circle was tightly held," as Tarnoff would later testify, with key Cuba specialists cut out of the loop for fear the negotiations would leak. President Clinton, however, knew about, authorized, and had given "total approval" for Tarnoff's mission.[1]

Over the course of three hours, Alarcón and Tarnoff hammered out a bilateral agreement to prevent a looming crisis at Guantánamo Naval Base. The United States would admit most of the 20,000 angry and potentially violent refugees who had been warehoused at the base since the balsero (rafter) crisis of August, 1994. To avoid inciting another exodus, all Cuban rafters would now be intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and, for the first time since the Cuban revolution in 1959, repatriated to Havana if they could not qualify for political asylum. The Castro government pledged not to take any punitive action against those who tried to leave and were returned.

When the immigration accord was simultaneously made public in Washington and Havana on May 2, it was perceived as a major change in U.S policy. The rabid right-wing anti-Castro lobby and its Congressionalsupporters charged that the agreement was "collaboration" with Fidel Castro, and that President Bill Clinton was the chief collaborator. Under the threat of subpoena, Turnoff was hauled before the Republican-led foreign-affairs committees in both the House and Senate, placed under oath (an official humiliation previously bestowed only upon known prevaricators such as Elliott Abrams during the Iran-Contra era), and treated to a bombast of rhetoric and a barrage of withering questions regarding the real preoccupation of the right–whether other secret deals had been made toward normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations. The powerful Cuban American National Foundation (CANF)–which the White House circumvented in shaping the agreement–issued a statement expressing "concern that this secret agreement with the Cuban government will lead to other negotiations harmful to the legitimate interests of the Cuban people."[2]

After organizing a series of street protests and work stoppages in Miami on June 8, CANF orchestrated a demonstration of several thousand angry Cuban Americans in front of the White House with chairman Jorge Mas Canosa as the featured speaker. "Nine months ago, I was sitting on the other side of this fence," he railed, describing his meeting with President Clinton the previous August. "I was in the Oval Office," he said. "I was talking to President Chinon, I sat with him because during his campaign he committed to a free Cuba. He said that during his presidency Cuba was going to turn into a free country.... Now we are [here] on the other side of the fence because he did not keep his cominitment."[3] The split between CANF and the Clinton Administration, Mas Canosa told Miami TV reporters, was "irreversible."

The White House did not intend the immigration accord to be a bold initiative. Indeed, it was not the accord itself, but the fallout from the accord which provided precisely the conditions for improving U.S.-Cuban ties that CANF and its backers so fear. With Mas Canosa burning his vaunted political bridges–"Jorge Mas Canosa is no longer a welcome guest at the White House," one State Department official declared–and CANF's grip on Florida electoral politics slipping, the door opened for the Clinton Administration to take further steps towards ending what Henry Kissinger once called the "perpetual hostility" in U.S. policy toward Cuba. "The long term implication," as even the conservative Wall Street Journal noted in a May 16 editorial on the political aftershocks from the immigration accord, "is that one of the most intractable U.S. foreign policy problems in the post war period is ripe for a fundamental rethinking."

For most of Clinton's tenure a sensible Cuba policy–one that simply reflects legitimate U.S. foreign-policy goals–has been held hostage to the Administration's short-run political calculus. U.S. national interests in regulated immigration flows, Caribbean peace and stability, enhanced U.S. international credibility, and an orderly discourse with neighboring countries over issues such as drug trafficking have all been subordinated to two domestic political concerns: money and votes. Even before his election, Clinton signaled that his approach to Cuba was forsale.

Shortly after the Gennifer Flowers expose rocked the Clinton campaign boat in 1992, Mas Canosa propositioned the Arkansas governor. If Clinton would endorse the embargo–tightening Cuba Democracy Act (CDA)–known as the Torricelli bill after its chief sponsor, Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ)–Mas Canosa would quietly provide entrée for him into Little Havana's wealthy political world. "I think [the Bush] Administration has missed a big opportunity to put the hammer down on Fidel Castro," Clinton announced at a fundraiser in Miami on April 23, 1992. "I've read the Torricelli bill and I like it."[4] The fundraiser garnered over $100,000, and Clinton's endorsement of the CDA propelled President George Bush into signing the legislation.

Even though Clinton subsequently lost Florida, from that point onward CANF wielded considerable clout on Cuba policy. Though several senior members of his foreign-policy team–including Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Undersecretary Turnoff, and Richard Feinberg, the chief Latin American specialist on the National Security Council (NSC) staff–had either supported dialogue with Cuba or had called for a relaxation of the embargo before their appointments, their voices were largely drowned out in the President's efforts to avoid conflict with CANF. When the new White House nominated a Cuban-American investment lawyer, Mario Baeza, to be assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Mas Canosa mounted an intense lobbying campaign aggainst him on the grounds that Baeza had traveled to Cuba with business groups and was soft on Castro. The nomination Was quickly withdrawn.

For the first two years of the Administration's tenure, its operative goal on Cuba seemed to be to do nothing–nothing that would offend the anti-Castro political forces in Florida. "The political climate right now is: Don't take any chances," one official told the Wall Street Journal in November, 1993. Cuba policy, another official told the authors in a 1993 interview, was "being made by the political staff, not the foreign-policy specialists." The political staff was attracted to campaign contributions from wealthy Cuban-American Democrats who espoused the position of CANF but who were not linked to it. At one Miami fundraiser in 1994, chaired by Jorge Pérez, the Democratic National Committee garnered over $3 million, about $500,000 of which came from Cuban Americans. If the President could avoid alienating the Cuban-American voters in Florida, his White House strategists also believed, it would be possible for him to win this crucial state in 1996. The electoral calculation was confirmed by Richard Nuccio, the then-special assistant to Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs Alexander Watson, at a June 1994 conference on Cuba sponsored by the Fund for New Priorities. The President had lost 85% of the Cuban-Annerican vote in 1992, Nuccio told the audience. "Had he lost only 75%, he would have won Florida. Our goal is to get that 10%."

International circumstances, U.S. national interests, and competing domestic-policy pressures, however, have prevented the Clinton Administration from focusing exclusively on narrow electoral considerations. Most pressing was the matter of immigration, which has bedeviled U.S.-Cuban relations since 1980, when 125,000 Cubans came to the United States, most from the port of Mariel. The potential for a repeat of the Mariel exodus became apparent in the summer of 1994.

The flood of refugees began in mid-July, after a Cuban fire-fighting boat rammed a tug hijacked by would-be emigrés. The tug sank, drowning 31 people. Cuban authorities said the sinking had been accidental, but on July 18 President Bill Clinton characterized it as evidence of Cuban government "brutality." This seemed to send a signal of encouragement to potential rafters, and several ferry boats were hijacked within a week. On August 5, approximately one thousand people crowded along the Malecón near the port of Havana in response to news that more boats were being hijacked. The crowd then turned violent, breaking store windows and hurling rocks at police, in what became the largest anti-government demonstration since 1959.

From the perspective of the Cuban government, the balsero situation represented an untenable dilemma. On the one hand, it could not tolerate ferry hijackings and associated public disorder. On the other hand, economic and political conditions did not enable Fidel Castro to ruthlessly restrain thousands of his own people. Moreover, Cuban officials perceived that Washington was encouraging Cubans to flee, through Radio Marti broadcasts and statements such as President Clinton's.

Shortly after the August 5 melee, President Castro simply announced that people would be permitted to leave freely in small rafts. Propelled largely by the worsening economic conditions in Cuba–which had reduced per-capita daily food consumption to less than 1,800 calories, and had left Havana with blackouts of up to 20 hours per day–more than 6,000 Cuban rafters had arrived in the United States by mid-August. (In comparison, 3,200 had emigrated in all of 1993.)

On August 18, Attorney General Janet Reno abruptly announced that the 28-year-old policy of granting asylum to all Cubans as political refugees had changed, and that Cuban rafters interdicted on the high seas would be detained. "We can manage the crisis for as long as necessary," the State Department's Tarnoff predicted with bravado in an Associated Press interview a few days later. "Talks are not useful because this is not a problem to be resolved between the United States and Cuba. Castro must listen to what his own people are saying."

When angry right-wing Cuban Americans demanded that the White House listen to what they had to say about the new policy, administration officials implemented "operation mollification"–inviting Mas Canosa to meet with the President on August 19 for consultation. White House photos recorded smiles and hugs between the two, as Clinton interrupted his own birthday celebration to sit down for more than an hour with Mas Canosa, Florida Governor Lawton Chiles, and several other Miami officials. "You must kick out the last leg of the stool," Mas Canosa told Clinton–banging his fist on the table according to one participant–by cutting family cash remittances, and terminating all travel to and from the island.[5] In return for Mas Canosa's public support for the plan to intern thousands of Cuban refugees at Guantánamo, President Clinton personally announced new sanctions on August 20 that ended remittances and severely restricted travel.[6]

The President hoped that the August policy changes would provide a quick fix to the refugee crisis. He reportedly had blamed his 1980 defeat for re-election as Arkansas governor on the riots by Cubans housed in Arkansas who had arrived in the Mariel exodus, and he was anxious to avoid another "Mariel." The 28-year-old asylum policy had acted as a magnet for Cubans who wanted to leave the island, and the White House reasoned that the new exodus would cease once the United States were "de-magnetized."

By August 23, it was clear that this reasoning was flawed. That day was the high point in the number of Cubans rescued at sea: 3,253 were picked up by the Coast Guard, with another 3,096 interdicted the next day. By the first week of September, more than 30,000 refugees had been picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard. An unknown number drowned while trying to cross the Florida Straits. Faced with no other options, on September 1 the Clinton Administration did what U.S. officials had said Washington would not do-initiate negotiations in New York with the Castro government.

Headed by Ricardo Alarcón, the Cuban delegation demanded that the United States permit 20,000 Cubans to emigrate legally each year, the number that had been agreed to in a 1984 immigration pact between the two countries. The United States argued that it had been complying with the 1984 accord because the 20,000 figure was merely an upper limit, and it had been permitting approximately 2,000 Cubans to enter the United States annually. The Cubans also demanded that the United States enter into negotiations on the embargo, claiming it was contributing to the very conditions that forced people to flee from its shores. The U.S. delegation, headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Michael Skol, balked at the second demand, asserting that only one issue–immigration–was on the table.

On September 9, the two sides signed a new immigration accord that met the Cuban demand for 20,000 immigrants to be admitted to the United States annually. At that point, the Cuban government announced it would no longer allow people to leave by raft, and the flow halted virtually overnight.

From the Cuban perspective, the September 9 accord provided a way of regulating the flow of people who desperately wanted to leave. Moreover, Cuban officials hoped that the subsequent meetings to monitor the accord–scheduled at 45-day intervals–would offer a venue for raising other outstanding bilateral concerns with Washington. For that reason, the Cubans dispatched their most seasoned diplomat, Alarcón, to each of these meetings. In contrast, the Clinton Administration sent a mid-level State Department desk officer, Dennis Hays, a signal of its abject lack of interest in using the talks for improving diplomatic relations.

Not only did Washington fail to build on the good will and interaction surrounding the negotiations, but it ignored a political and human time bomb of its own making. In an effort to avoid the problems that had occurred when the Mariel emigrés were housed in detention camps in the United States, the Administration housed approximately 20,000 at the Guantánamo Naval Base, along with Haitian refugees held there, and sent the rest to Panama. But there was no plan for dealing with these detainees. Over the next six months, the Haitians were returned to their country and some 8,000 Cubans–children with parents in the United States, and infirm elderly–were paroled into the United States. The Cubans remaining in Panama were then sent to Guantánamo, because Panama had agreed to hold them only for half a year. In April, General John Sheehan, commander of the U.S Atlantic Command, warned the White House of likely riots among the 20,000 Cubans in Guantánamo during the hot summer months, endangering both U.S. soldiers and the refugees themselves. His warning propelled the Administration into talks that led to the May 2 immigration accord.

Republicans responded to the May 2 accord by accelerating their legislative efforts to tighten the trade embargo through a bill sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC and Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN). Supporters of the so-called "Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act" made no secret of their intent: to foster the overthrow of Fidel Castro through what Helms called "a final push" over the brink. "Whether Castro leaves in a vertical or horizontal position is up to him," the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee intoned as he introduced the legislation. "But he must, and will, leave Cuba."[7]

The bill reflected a long wish list of punitive measures–against Cuba, against other industrial nations that trade with Cuba, and also against U.S. Citizens who travel to Cuba–that CANF officials have sought for years. Allegedly drafted in part by lobbyists for the Bacardi Rum Corporation, which seeks to recover nationalized sugar properties, the bill became the locus of debate on Cuba policy in the spring and summer of 1995.

The proposed law would rachet up pressure on Cuba in three ways. First, and most controversially, if the Helms-Burton bill became law it would penalize those who invest in, trade with, or aid Cuba. Countries like Canada which import Cuban sugar would have the quota of syrups and molasses they export to the United States reduced by the amount of Cuban sugar they import. The $200 million in foreign assistance earmarked for Russia would be withheld until Moscow closed its surveillance station at Lourdes. Foreign companies that owned or had commerce with Cuban properties expropriated from a U.S. citizen–even if that person had not been a citizen when the property was seized–would no longer be eligible for U.S. bank loans. Their executives and families would be barred from entering the United States, and their shareholders could be sued by U.S. claimants. This would enable suits to be filed against U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations that do business in Cuba.

The bill would open the door for thousands of additional claims on confiscated properties. In 1972 the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission determined that approximately 5,000 U.S. citizens had claims against Cuba worth $1.8 billion, or about $6 billion today with accrued interest. By expanding the group of claimants to those who subsequently became citizens, the estimated claim becomes $100 billion–an amount, analysts pointed out, that Cuba would need more than 100 years to pay off.

The second major element of the legislation would restrict the President's ability to respond to a transition in Cuba. It mandates withholding all multilateral and bilateral assistance until a "democratically" elected government was in place, and then proceeds to define who can be elected and who cannot. Were either Fidel or Raul Castro to win a supervised election, according to the bill, the resulting government would not be considered democratic, and the policy of pressure would remain in place.

Finally, the Senate version of the bill inundated civil penalties against U.S. citizens who travel to Cuba without a requisite license. Travelers would be slapped with an immediate $50,000 administrative fine, which would be easier to impose and more difficult for citizens to challenge than the current civil penalties.

With such a far reach, the Helms-Burton bill generated extraordinary opposition. Its extraterritoriality provisions were condemned vociferously by most U.S. allies including the European Community. "Should these bills become law," the Canadian government stated in one confidential diplomatic note, "the legislation would constitute an objectionable attempt to extend U.S. measures against Cuba beyond U.S. jurisdiction and would constitute an illegitimate intrusion upon third countries." The British government launched an intense lobbying campaign through its Washington embassy. Mexico declared that the bill would violate NAFTA and GATT, and threatened to sue the United States at the World Trade Organization if it passed.

The White House itself was disturbed by the infringement on what it saw as presidential prerogatives in foreign policy. After a lengthy and acrimonious interagency review, the Clinton Administration decided to oppose most provisions of the bill, "A number of the bill's provisions could conflict with broader U.S. interests, including our compliance with major international trade agreements, our arms-control cooperation with, and support for democracy in Russia, and our commitment to respect international law," the Administration wrote Congress in a letter dated April 28. At the same time, however, the White House signaled that "there are aspects...we can support. These include making the embargo more effective, [and] accelerating planning for assistance to Cuba under a transition." Its concerns, the letter suggested, "could be resolved through consultation."

The Clinton Administration's less-than-forceful opposition to the bill reflected its waffling on Cuba in general. The momentum created in the aftermath of the May 2 immigration accord, the pressure from the international community to end an anachronistic Cold War policy, and events in Cuba itself all presented an opportunity to fundamentally rethink the imperial approach that has dominated U.S. policy for 35 years. But in both action and inaction, the Administration failed to seize the opportunity that had presented itself.

Abroad, U.S. allies strongly encouraged the United States to end the embargo for pragmatic and humanitarian reasons and to join the community of nations who are engaging Cuba politically, economically and culturally. As the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cuba, Ambassador Carl-Johan Groth, observed, "The prolonged economic, trade and financial embargoes imposed by the United States...are now an obstacle to the necessary opening up of a system shaped and justified to a large extent by a perceived need to withstand external pressures and hostile acts which threaten national sovereignty."

In Cuba, the process of economic liberalization provided a clear rationale to lessen tensions. The economic reforms–opening farmers' markets, the creation of more than 200 joint-venture corporations with Western companies, and the allowing of independent entrepreneurs–were creating "a nation in historic transition," as even a March 1995 study written for the Pentagon by former CIA official Nestor Sánchez acknowledged.[8] These reforms could have been seized upon as warrant for the sort of positive "calibrated response" U.S. officials claimed they were prepared to take. Castro's decision in June to release prominent political prisoners and to meet with Etoy Gutiérrez Menoyo, the head of the exile group Cambio Cubano, might also have provided incentive for a positive U.S. action.

Moreover, changing political dynamics within the Cuban-American community and even among conservative ranks offered political cover for lifting the embargo as the most effective way to assert U.S. national interests. A major U.S. Information Agency Inspector General's report on Mas Canosa's flagrant abuse of influence at Radio Martí demonstrated that his once-omnipotent political power in Florida was on the wane. Polls taken in Miami in May showed majority support for the President's immigration policy, and revealed a clear split among Cuban Americans themselves.[9] Fearing loss of investment opportunities in Cuba to foreign competitors, prominent U.S. corporate leaders such as Lee Iococca began traveling to the island in search of potential business. "A constructive policy," as William Ratliff of the Hoover Institute wrote in the right-wing Washington Times, would begin with "bombing Havana–with a million Big Macs, U.S. ideas, U.S. products, U.S. citizens." Other prominent conservative voices such as William Buckley, John McLaughlin and the Wall Street Jouma have joined traditional embargo critics to call for an end to sanctions. Pentagon reports like the Sánchez study provided national-security rationales for doing so. And Clinton's decision to normalize relations with Vietnam raised the issue of why similar steps could not be taken with Cuba.

Instead, the Administration backtracked, offering a ringing endorsement of the trade embargo. "The United States will maintain the economic embargo against the Cuban regime," the President stated in a video address beamed to Cuban-American communities via satellite in late June. "This is an important way to promote change in Cuba, and it will remain in place until we see far-reaching political and economic support."

Morton Halperin–the NSC staffer who previously coordinated Cuba policy and has favored removing travel restrictions–to a less visible role on policy. Nuccio's appointment makes further pathbreaking agreements unlikely because of his intense drive to change Cuba's political system. He is a proponent of the "track 11" approach, the plan to expand contacts and support for nascent opposition and civic groups inside Cuba. "Among the many steps under consideration," the New York Times reported on June 12, "are allowing American news organizations to open bureaus in Cuba, funneling money and fax machines to Cuban human rights activists, and arranging exchanges of American and Cuban clerics, students, academics and artists." But the advocacy of such measures as engines of change has made the Cuban government all the more wary of them, especially those that are intended to fortify the kind of opposition that developed in Eastern Europe. This wariness, combined with Cuba's frustrations over the continuation of the August 20 sanctions, makes track 11 a dead-end policy.

A pro-active Cuba policy that improves relations and advances U.S. interests is once again on hold. As Republican presidential hopefuls trip over themselves in Florida trying to grab hold of right-wing Cuban endorsements by calling for stronger sanctions, and as the President has settled back into a mold of avoiding any controversy, change in U.S. policy is likely to come about only as an ad hoc reaction to events. Any serious consideration of relating Cuba policy to U.S. national interests will have to wait until 1997.

Philip Brenner is professor of international relations at the American University in Washington. Peter Kornbluh is director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive.

1. See Tarnoffs testimony before the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee, May 18, 1995.
2. Cuban American National Foundation statement, May 2, 1995.
3.Transcript of videotaped remarks at White House protest, June 8, 1995.
4. See Ann Louise Bardach, "Our Man in Miami," The New Republic, October 3, 1994, p. 20.
5. Ann Louise Bardach, "Our Man in Miami," The New Republic .
6. See "President Moves to Punish Castro for Cuban Exodus," New York Times, August 21, 1994, p. A1. According to the Federal Register, in an effort to "limit the ability of the Cuban Government to accumulate foreign exchange," the President ordered the cessation of cash remittances to families except "on a case-by-case basis for humanitarian purposes." In addition, travel to Cuba was severely restricted Under a 1982 executive order, general licenses were available to journalists, scholars, Cuban Americans visiting their families, and U.S. government officials. The new policy provided a general license only for "journalists regularly employed in that capacity by a news organization," and U.S. government officials. Scholars could apply for a specific license for the purpose of research, and Cuban Americans were denied the right to travel to Cuba except in cases of "extreme hardship."
7. For Helms' statement, see "U.S Embargo on Cuba Faces a Crossroads," USA Today, April 17, 1995, p. 6A.
8. This $250,000, 300-page contingency study predicts that because of this transition, Castro is likely to stay in power for the foreseeable future. See International Research 2000, The Military and Transition in Cuba, March 17, 1995.
9. A poll of Dade County residents found that 45% of the CubanAmerican community agreed that "the time has come to sharply limit Cuban immigration." See "Limit Cuban Immigration? Yes, Most in Survey Agree," Miami Herald, May 15, 1995, p. 1A.

Tags: Cuba, Bill Clinton, US foreign policy, embargo, Cuban-American lobby

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