Dark Days Ahead?

Wednesday, April 30, 2003
this is an image
this is an image

The Castro government’s recent imprisonment of scores of dissidents and its swift execution of three U.S.-bound hijackers were watershed events in the four-decade saga of U.S.-Cuban relations. In a matter of weeks, Castro managed to alienate old friends, effectively halt progress in Congress toward a more open American policy, and send hard-liners in the Bush administration on a gleeful search for retaliatory measures.

Opinions are divided as to why Castro acted with a fierceness that recalled the 1996 decision to shoot down two civilian planes piloted by exile activists. Some say he was spooked by the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq; others say he was appalled by the contacts between the top diplomat in Havana, James Cason, and government critics; still others say he sought to reassert his authority and justify himself in power by provoking another confrontation with Washington.

Whatever Castro’s motivation, the impulse to punish him is widespread. Politicians, religious leaders, human rights activists, and intellectuals have roundly condemned the crackdown, and several have abandoned their efforts to work at a more harmonious relationship between Washington and Havana. The entire board of the Cuba Policy Foundation, a group that has fought to lift U.S. sanctions against Cuba, resigned in protest of Castro’s jailing of nearly 80 government critics. In the White House, advisers eager for a showdown with Havana are encouraged.

Yet, in this time of crisis, it behooves Washington to react thoughtfully. In its zeal to signal its displeasure, it risks undercutting the very forces on the island that will be key to guiding Cuba away from violent upheaval. By increasing sanctions, the administration risks estranging itself further from ordinary Cubans, remaining aloof and uninformed about the Cuban reality at a crucial moment, and squandering an opportunity to advance cooperation in areas of mutual interest, such as terrorism and drugs.

What Went Wrong?

When I first started reporting on Cuba more than a decade ago, the island was a grim place. My interviews with ordinary Cubans took place behind closed doors. We spoke in whispers. They mimed a lot. Instead of saying Fidel’s name, they stroked their chins to indicate a beard. There was fear and hope about what might come next.

Cuba has changed in significant ways since then. By necessity, it has opened to the rest of the world. It has turned over its beaches to tourists from Europe and Canada. It has allowed limited foreign investment, legalized the dollar, and become dependent on cash from relatives in Miami. It has cobbled together a mixed economy that has managed to ease the most egregious shortcomings without liberating Cubans’ natural impulses for more economic and political freedom.

For four decades, U.S. policymakers have puzzled over what to do about Cuba, sitting 90 miles off Florida, cozying up to American enemies and periodically unleashing waves of desperate people to our shores. For most of that time, the guiding principles have been isolation and economic pressure. As the United States faces stark choices today in the Middle East and North Korea, it is useful to examine what went wrong with Cuba, how a bad relationship turned grotesque and impervious to Washington’s prescriptions for change.

Permit me a few blunt observations. The first is that American policy toward Cuba is a failure; the sooner we admit it, the sooner we can plan for what’s next. The second point is that the United States is not responsible for Cubans’ misery; the Cuban government is. Third: The American policy is still controlled by Cuban Americans who have a narrow, intensely personal interest in the outcome—although, as we will see, their influence is diminishing. Finally, the United States is compromising its own national security agenda by refusing to engage Cuba on matters of mutual interest, including drugs, the environment, and terrorism.

The Politics of Intransigence

It doesn’t take much imagination to see how American policy toward Cuba has failed. The biggest proof, of course, is Castro himself, still there after 10 American presidents.

The American rationale for isolating Cuba evolved over the years. If the goal was to reverse the expropriation of properties, the policy failed. Even the most ardent Castro critics concede they’re not likely to get their houses back. If the goal was to stop the spread of Soviet-Cuban subversion, the policy failed; think of the ruinous wars in Central America and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. If the goal was to starve Cubans into rising up; the plan was thwarted by Soviet subsidies and tight state security.

If the goal was to rally the international community beside us in opposition to Castro’s socialism, the policy has failed. Year after year, the United States fields a rebuke from the United Nations for its uncompromising stance toward Cuba. In reality, the United States has isolated itself. The last justification for the policy of isolation may be the most small-minded: punishment. Increasingly, it is the subtext when those responsible for Cuba policy meet. “Lift the embargo? I wouldn’t give Castro the satisfaction,” they say. In parts of Miami—as in Cuba—intransigence is a virtue.

Some analysts say that that the U.S. decision to halt diplomatic relations and cut off trade failed spectacularly because it gave Castro an excuse for his economic ineptitude and repression and rallied the people around an external enemy. But the United States is not responsible for Cubans’ misery. The Cubans themselves are. After 40 years of rallies, Cubans know their slogans by heart. The reason there is no soap, or toilet paper, or fresh chicken? Blame it on el bloqueo, the American blockade.

But the United States has nothing like a blockade around Cuba today. Cuban Americans send hundreds of millions of dollars in cash to relatives on the island each year. Some estimates are as high as $1 billion. The remittances have surpassed other sources of income in the country.

In addition to that, Americans are visiting Cuba in record numbers. More than 200 U.S. universities and research centers have been licensed by the Treasury Department to lead trips to Cuba. About 150,000 Americans visited with such permission last year. Another 50,000 slipped into Cuba illegally from third countries.

Cuba says the U.S. embargo has cost it tens of billions of dollars in lost trade and added import costs. The assumption is that Cubans are entitled to trade with the United States, which is nonsense. The Cubans changed the rules more than 40 years ago when they confiscated nearly 6,000 American properties without compensation. They have proven themselves to be unreliable and overweening business partners ever since.

The most successful business operations in Cuba are run with foreign expertise on the margins of Cuban society—Canadian mining operations, for example, or Spanish hotels—with little direct benefit for average Cubans. The Castro government, meanwhile, is crushing its own experiment with private enterprise. It has taxed many independent restaurants out of business and slashed in half the number of licenses for the self-employed.

The Standoff

Who controls U.S. policy toward Cuba? There is a struggle under way. For the first time, there are competing constituencies that appear evenly matched. The battle is pitting Congress against the White House and is pitting trade and agricultural associations against the toughest elements of the Miami Cuban community and their political allies.

Exile leaders still have the upper hand, a position they have occupied since the early days of the Reagan administration, when, under the guidance of Jorge Mas Canosa—now deceased—they set up a lobby patterned on AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby. But divisions are increasingly apparent within the exile community, as moderates seek to increase ties and overcome an image of extremism, fostered in part by the struggle to keep the young shipwreck survivor, Elián González, in this country.

In two decades, the lobby leveraged itself into an impressive force in presidential politics. It managed the swing vote in a must-have state. After 2000, no one needs to persuade President Bush of the importance of winning Florida. But, just in case, the president’s political adviser, Karl Rove, has stepped in to manage aspects of Cuba policy.

Congress has challenged the exile-led orthodoxy. In 2000, lawmakers carved an important exemption in the trade embargo by legalizing the sale of food and medicines. Since then, U.S. companies have sent nearly $200 million in corn, rice, and other commodities.

A prominent voice for change is the Cuba Working Group, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers mostly from farm states. These advocates are supported by American agribusiness interests and other exporters, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others. They are now setting their sights on ending travel restrictions and claim a majority in both the House and Senate. But their efforts have been badly undermined by Castro’s most recent crackdown, and many prominent members now say the near-term prospects for a more liberal policy are dim.

Cuban Americans in Washington’s foreign policy bureaucracy stand sentry against this effort. Among them is Otto Reich, an anti-Castro activist and former U.S. ambassador, who has served in State Department and White House posts. The exiles’ most important champion is, of course, the president himself. He has vowed to veto any significant easing of sanctions.

Preparing for a Post-Fidel Cuba

The standoff with Cuba is compromising our own national security agenda. The chief American aim should be a peaceful transition on the island. By limiting contacts, the United States has left itself with precious few tools. Washington has virtually no allies within the Havana government; its intelligence operation is meager and penetrated; it has to overcome four decades of spoon-fed animosity to win the hearts and minds of average Cubans.

There are few indications that Castro is planning for his own end. It’s après moi, le déluge. Such a void can be encouraging only to the bitterest, most violent sectors on either side. In recent years, Cuba has sought to engage the United States on drugs, the environment, and terrorism. Havana didn’t make such gestures out of kindness. It hopes to get a foot in the door for a political settlement. Washington has rebuffed the overtures and even responded with new allegations that Cuba may be developing biological weapons.

The only real ongoing cooperation between the United States and Cuba is on immigration. Officials meet several times a year to enforce a bilateral agreement that allows the orderly resettlement of 20,000 Cuban immigrants a year and the repatriation of boat people intercepted at sea. But even that arrangement is in jeopardy. Havana has accused the United States of dragging its feet on issuing visas to provoke unrest; administration officials say the delays are due to post–September 11 security checks.

What will happen? Cuba watchers joke that biology will triumph in the end. Castro, after all, is 76 years old. However, whole careers have been spent predicting his demise.

With proper attention, Cuba’s recovery could be bloodless and its recovery, swift. The United States needs to break free of parochial obsessions and act in the national interest. Americans can offer tourists, trade, investment, and, yes, the remarkable energies of returning exiles. But that onslaught must be carefully managed so as not to drive an exhausted and frightened population back into its hole.