Why El Jefe Cracked Down

Wednesday, July 30, 2003
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this is an image

At the beginning of June, Amnesty International designated the 75 “prisoners of conscience” and the European Union deplored Castro’s “flagrant violation of human rights.” In an unprecedented action, Europe even pledged to impose mini-sanctions, including limiting high-level diplomatic contacts, expanding ties to those dissidents who remained free, and reconsidering broader relations with the dictator.

Even some of Castro’s longtime admirers, including Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, abandoned him in grave disappointment. To top it off, HBO canceled the planned May premiere of Comandante, Oliver Stone’s adulatory new “documentary” about Castro. Since Stone had said Castro is “one of the earth’s wisest people,” HBO officials suggested that the famed director “complete” his suddenly “outdated” tribute by returning to Cuba to ask the wise man why he imprisons democrats. So Stone got an additional 30 hours of interview, suggesting that it takes a lot of words to justify such repression. (Watch your local TV Guide for the return of Comandante.) Of course there were some ever-loyal apologists, the most prominent being two other Nobel laureates: Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for decades Castro’s literary lapdog, and the Guatemalan Indian activist Rigoberta Menchu.

But while the obsequiousness of Garcia Marquez, Menchu, and Stone was to be expected, the events of early 2003 demonstrate once again that many Americans and others who quite rightly condemned Castro’s actions still do not grasp what makes Cuba’s leader tick (after 44 years in power) and how to deal realistically with him. For example, in late April the Washington-based Cuba Policy Foundation, which had promoted lifting the embargo and had a strong board of directors, slammed its doors for good in frustration and disgust, proclaiming that Castro’s “wholesale repression of human rights is incomprehensible.”

Incomprehensible? Not at all. Castro is perhaps the most predictable leader of modern times. He is not crazy or senile or unintentionally subverting improved relations with the United States. Nor is he necessarily incapable of coping with the challenges of a U.S.-dominated world that largely scorns his vision of socialism, though even he may misjudge a particular situation. It is the inability or refusal to understand Castro that is incomprehensible, when it is not simply political.

Most embargo supporters now assert that Castro’s March–April repression proves that the European approach of “engagement” has failed. The European Union’s mini-sanctions in June seem to suggest that Europeans, if they are serious in this revision of their policies, are tilting toward a similar conclusion. But a serious analyst can only say, “of course they failed.” And so has our embargo, not least by providing the pretext for the imprisonment of the dissident leaders (the virtual decapitation of the democracy movement) who were the centerpiece of our effort to promote democracy and human rights on the island. A fundamental fact of Cuban history since 1959, when Castro took power, is that neither enticements nor pressures, from Moscow in the past or from us today, ever have or ever will change Castro’s trajectory more than temporarily, unless the Cuban dictator himself wants to change. And his actions prove he doesn’t.

Castro’s hard line this spring was deliberately chosen for two main reasons: first, to immobilize those who do not share his vision and might someday challenge his leadership; second, to undercut growing U.S. moderation toward Cuba. To understand these actions, one must know four things about Castro.

First, he hates the United States. Even before he took power, he wrote his close aide Célia Sánchez (the letter is displayed in the Museum of the Revolution in downtown Havana) that his “true destiny” would be to wage a prolonged war against the United States. Why? The roots of his hatred are in the histories of his family and nation and in the contrast between the traditional Spanish paternalism he represents (never mind all his “revolutionary” proclamations) and the British/American individual freedoms he despises. Castro’s loathing is not just for the U.S. government, as some of his supporters say. He rejects American culture in toto. To him it is the supreme manifestation of the inequality, individualism, materialism, and imperialism he says he detests.

Second, Castro is trying to create his alternate vision, a heaven on earth. Like Che Guevara, whose face stares out from every flat surface in Cuba, he seeks an egalitarian world (though some of course are more equal than others) with selfless people who value moral over material rewards in life and will allow him to make all the decisions that affect their lives. (“We will be like Che,” kids are taught to chant in school.) In practice Castro’s policies promote material underdevelopment rather than growth, and thus despite his moralistic crusades, poverty precludes most Cubans from being more morally enlightened than most of us. You will see this from visiting Cuba with your eyes open or viewing T.G. Alea’s film Strawberry and Chocolate or reading Cuban novelist Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy (which had to be published abroad). In the novel a Brazilian visitor to the island perceptively remarks that she is “pained to witness so much poverty and so much political posturing to disguise it.”

When conditions become too bedraggled or volatile due to failed policies or, as in the early 1990s, to the sudden disappearance of enormous Soviet bloc support (from a quarter to a third of the GNP), Castro allows a little freedom to get peasants or private entrepreneurs to produce more. Then, when the crisis abates, he tightens the egalitarian screws again and reduces freedom. That is, in practice Castro allows changes that presumably advance the long-term interests of the Cuban people but certainly enable him to maintain personal power. So peasant markets, private restaurants (paladars), rooms for rent in private homes, and freedom to speak just a little of one’s mind—you name it—come and go. In the end, the critical word is “go.” They exist only at his personal discretion.

Third, Castro believes that he alone can accomplish this transformation of man and society and that this necessitates his maintaining absolute power at whatever cost. Indeed, people who have worked closely with Castro say he quite likes, and even lives for, the power itself and the international attention that accompanies it. Castro considers periodic imprisonments and executions just one part of defending this personal power and writes off “friends” who criticize him.

Many leftists were appalled in 1968 when he supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In 1971, his arrest of Heberto Padilla and the confession extracted from the young poet led Jean-Paul Sartre and many other leftists worldwide to charge that the affair recalled “the most sordid moments of Stalinism.” Hardly blinking, Castro branded Sartre and Co. CIA agents and went about his business. In 1989, in an unabashedly Stalinist trial, Castro “convicted” Cuba’s foremost military leader, the reform-oriented and very popular General Arnaldo Ochoa, of dealing in drugs. He and several others were summarily executed, the top and reformist levels of the Interior Ministry were purged, and the interior minister, a decades-long close colleague of Castro’s, was thrown into prison where he died. The lesson is clear: It is fatal to be popular in Cuba unless you are already dead, like Che or Camilo Cienfuegos, that other almost as omnipresent revolutionary hero. The recent repression is more of the same. When the European Union criticized Castro’s arrests and executions in June, the Cuban government immediately charged that the E.U., led by Spain and Italy, had “caved in” to the American imperialists.

Fourth, Castro thrives on conflict. His very legitimacy depends on his having an enemy. His three convictions noted above, taken with historical and geographical realities, have made the United States that obvious great enemy. During the Cold War his siding with the Soviet Union (which for almost three decades funded and provided a shield for Castro’s revolution) was motivated by and guaranteed conflict with the United States. Since the demise of the Soviet bloc and the strategic importance of Castro’s antagonism, and the virtual elimination of his most aggressive international activities, American politicians themselves have chosen to give Castro the enemy he needs to feed his ego and be a scapegoat for all his failures. They have not only maintained but even tightened the counterproductive embargo.

Today, Castro’s repression and the failure of his developmental model are largely rejected (or overlooked) around the world. But in many parts of Latin America—again proving unable or unwilling to undertake serious and productive reforms and often blaming their failure on the United States—there is considerable sympathy for Castro’s decades-long condemnations of U.S. influence, from the Right as much as from the Left. For example, last May in increasingly anti-American Argentina, Castro had one of his most riotously successful America-bashing orgies of recent decades, his performance overshadowing the presidential inauguration that presumably occasioned his visit.

In this year’s May Day speech, Castro elaborated on previous comments that the crackdown was due to stepped up U.S. efforts to assassinate him or invade the island or both. In particular, he said the arrests were in response to increasing U.S. support for Cuban dissidents. Cuba asserts that, since Washington overtly seeks “regime change,” which is true, all dissidents, especially if they receive any encouragement from the United States, are mercenaries, which is nonsense. In June he promised he still had “many things to say and many people to unmask” in the months ahead.

For more than four decades Americans have been challenged to come up with a constructive response to this transparent man. During the Cold War, U.S. attention was on checking Cuba’s activities as a strategic ally of the Soviet Union. Since then the justification of a tightened embargo has been a vague, largely counterproductive “support for” Cuban democracy, human rights, and open markets. Efforts to develop a realistic, constructive policy have been thwarted by hatred, by revenge-seeking and fuzzy-minded dreaming on the Right and the Left, and by inertia and domestic political interests all around.

That is, U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War has accomplished none of its objectives and never will. This is altogether predictable since it is based on false premises of all sorts, which I have discussed in an earlier Hoover Institution study (A Strategic Flip-Flop in the Caribbean: Lift the Embargo on Cuba). Here I focus mainly on issues directly related to the events of early 2003, for nowhere is our blindness (or disingenuousness) more obvious than in the major disconnect between our professions of support for dissidents and our actions. In the end, one might paraphrase James Reston and say, Americans will do anything for Cuban dissidents except listen to them.

Who knows best how to deal with and survive Castro’s power? Cubans on the island, of course, most of whom just keep their mouths shut and wait for the Horse to die. But also several thousand democratic dissidents who try to play a somewhat more active role by calling for moderate changes. In recent years, Americans have even learned some of their names: Oswaldo Payá, Elizardo Sánchez, Vladimiro Roca, Héctor Palacios, and Oscar Espinosa Chépe, among others.

American policymakers are all ears when these dissidents talk of deplorable political and economic conditions in Cuba. But when they say how we could best support their domestic reform efforts, we give them a very cold shoulder. American policymakers and their supporters believe, or at least legislate as if they believe, that Washington and Miami politicians (or former politicians), headed by Torricelli, Helms, Burton, Lieberman, Diaz-Balart, and Ros-Lehtinen, the architects of our current policy, know more than the dissidents about how to deal with Castro and his manipulation of power. Of course Cuban American and other U.S. officials have every right to lobby for what they think serves Cubans (or themselves) best, but Washington politicians should also recognize the obligation to think seriously for themselves about U.S. and even Cuban interests.

Two years ago I interviewed several of Cuba’s leading dissidents, among them Sánchez, Espinosa Chepe, and Palacios. Palacios told me he had recently polled dissidents on the embargo and found that 90 percent believed it should be lifted. (I didn’t talk with Palacios or Espinosa Chepe on my visit to Cuba in March–April 2003 because Castro’s kangaroo courts were even then busy sentencing them to a total of almost 50 years in prison.)

Payá, who was not imprisoned in early 2003, repeated this plea for lifting the embargo after the repression began. (He probably was left free because he had been nominated for the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, which, were he to receive it, would challenge even Castro’s ability to slough off criticism.) Why do dissidents support lifting the embargo? Because, as Sánchez said, “isolation is oxygen for totalitarians.” The vast majority of dissidents believe Fidel Castro is the main beneficiary of U.S. policy. He uses the embargo as a scapegoat for his economic failures and to “justify” political repression, such as the arrests in early 2003. Even many embargo supporters in the United States, including some who helped draw up and implement current policy, admit (in private) that Castro is the big winner with the sanctions.

Many Americans had expected President Bush to respond to Castro’s latest repression by announcing a major tightening of the embargo on May 20, Cuban Independence Day. He did not do so. He probably knew of the pending E.U. mini-sanctions and hoped that by not tightening the embargo further he might promote a serious international front against Castro. In mid-June Secretary of State Colin Powell was given the impossible mission of rallying the Latin American foreign ministers at the Organization of American States session in Santiago, Chile, to issue a similar criticism of Castro. It is impossible because, among other reasons, many Latin leaders refuse to criticize Castro without simultaneously condemning the U.S. embargo. Since we won’t lift the embargo, they say we have nothing to talk about.

Thus, as of mid-2003, the United States has rejected the two serious policy options: first, lifting the counterproductive sanctions unilaterally (our current quid pro quo reform strategy effectively gives Castro a veto over our policy) or, second, a real embargo. A real embargo would end all travel, immigration, and remittances, among other things, which would substantially worsen living conditions and increase prospects for unrest, greater repression, bloody violence, perhaps U.S. military intervention, and regime change. But at what a high probable cost to Cubans and ourselves, now and almost certainly in the future!

The only change in U.S. policy as of mid-June has been clamping down on permits for Americans wanting to travel to Cuba—that is, barring visits by those the dissidents say bring “oxygen” to the island—and kicking out 14 Cuban diplomats. So for now the United States maintains a compromising, perfect-failure policy that has no chance of bringing the Cuban leader down or advancing democracy or human rights but instead assures Castro of enough dollars to survive, gives him his scapegoat, and assures him an international platform from which to condemn U.S. “imperialist” bullying of his little nation.

In the end, Castro is now what he has always been and undoubtedly will remain until the end of his days: an idealistic, often self-serving, anti-American, anti-capitalist nationalist. But he is an internationalist as well, for he sees a critical link between Cuba’s ultimate success and that of like-oriented regimes around the world. There aren’t many of these regimes left right now, but Castro believes that if he can keep the pure flame burning in Cuba, the world will eventually come back to join him in making a socialist “heaven on earth.” He is encouraged by rising international criticism of globalization and by the stalling of or retreat from market reforms under way in most of Latin America.

As questions regarding U.S. international activism grow around the world, our antiquated Cuba policy keeps Castro an international “anti-imperialist” player and guarantees him world-wide audiences. We ourselves bestow some legitimacy on him, feed his insatiable ego, and give him the Latin American and even global stages he craves for proclaiming his socialist and anti-American visions to many peoples and nations that are increasingly receptive to such messages.