Bush’s Dysfunctional Cuba Policy

The Bush administration’s Cuba policy has reached a dead end, with no hope of success. Its objective is nothing less than to bring down the Castro regime. Or, as then-Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega put it on October 2, 2003: “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.”

President George W. Bush then appointed a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba with the goals of bringing about “an expeditious end of the dictatorship,” and developing a plan to achieve that goal. In May 2004, the Commission came out with a near-500- page plan whose basic premise was that the Castro regime was near collapse and that another shove or two would bring it down–a few more Radio Marti broadcasts, a few more travel restrictions, another economic sanction or two and it would all be over. The plan also read like a blueprint for an American occupation that would make the trains run on time, show the Cubans how to run their school systems and grow their crops–so much so that it offended many Cubans who read it, even those who didn’t necessarily agree with the Castro government.

To correct that, the new–and shorter–report issued by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Transition Coordinator Caleb McCarry, on July 10 this year stressed that its purpose was simply to assist Cubans on the island. Solutions must come from them, it insisted, adding that the U.S. stood ready and willing to support those initiatives. But having said that, the report went on with page after page of recommended actions–always provided that Cubans on the island wished to initiate them.

U.S. Plan Found Raul “Unacceptable”

The new plan was issued with much fanfare and the strong suggestion that the strategy was working and that we’d reached a new stage in the transformation of Cuba. There was a new wrinkle, however. The goal of the old plan, as stated above, had been to bring down the Castro government. The new objective, rather, was to prevent what was called a “succession strategy,” i.e., that Fidel Castro be succeeded by his brother, Raul. This was deemed “unacceptable.”

But no sooner had the administration said it was unacceptable than it happened. On July 31, Fidel announced that because of a delicate operation and the need for time to recuperate, he was signing power over to his brother, who would now become acting President.

The Cuban people took the succession with calm maturity. Raul Castro does not have his brother’s charisma, but is a respected figure, recognized for his administrative talents. The Armed Forces, which he leads, is the most efficient and respected institution in the country. At this point, two and a half months after the succession, things are running smoothly and normally in Cuba.

In Miami, of course, there was at first dancing in the streets and interviews reflecting the strong expectation that the Cuban people would not accept Raul Castro and that the Cuban Revolution would collapse forthwith. Reflecting that same kind of thinking, the State Department immediately rejected the transfer of power and demanded instead that the Cuban people have the right to freely elect any new government. It also offered to assist their efforts toward a transition more to their (and the State Department’s) liking. Bush and Rice called on the Cuban people “to work for democratic change” and stressed that the United States stood ready to help “Cuba’s transition to democracy” in any way possible.

U.S. Mumbling to Itself

But these entreaties, in effect calling on the Cuban people to work against the successor government, were totally ignored by them. Meanwhile, as it refused to deal with the government of Fidel Castro, the administration also refuses to deal with the new President, Raul Castro. And so, it has no one to talk to. It insists that there must be a new government, but it has no means of bringing that about. It is, in effect, left on the sidelines mumbling to itself.

Further, the idea put forward by the administration that our policy was working and that the Cuban economy–and government–were on the verge of collapse, could be seen by anyone who looked as a total fiction. Rather than collapsing, the Cuban economy, between 2004 and 2006, grew at a rate of approximately 8% per year. Revenues from tourism increased. The price of nickel, Cuba’s main export, went to record highs. Cuba has new and very profitable economic relationships with Venezuela and China, and indications of a new oil field off the north coast, with other countries already bidding for drilling sites. It certainly is not nearing collapse. Quite the contrary.

And what measures does the administration have in its quiver to bring down the Cuban government? More of the same. It says, for example, that it will expand Radio and TV Marti broadcasts. A farce. Radio Marti has been broadcasting for some 20 years now without having the slightest effect on Cuban public opinion. TV Marti, despite efforts to transmit from aircraft and other new innovations, is still not seen because the Cuban government jams the broadcasts. Even if it were, its effect wouldn’t likely be more than that of Radio Marti. In effect, zero.

Counterproductive Dissident Aid

The administration also promises to provide some $80 million for dissidents on the island and various other programs against the Cuban government. Again, a farce. As Oswaldo Paya, one of Cuba’s leading dissidents, who says he would not accept any such handouts, has put it to me on a number of occasions: “Virtually all such funds remain in Miami, but they tarnish us even so and simply make our work more difficult.”

The strong suspicion among Cuban-Americans who favor dialogue, and among many others as well, is that the $80 million really represents a pay-off to hard-line exiles who are unhappy with what they see as the administration’s overly cautious efforts to get rid of the Cuban Revolution. Whether a pay-off or not, as Paya says, virtually all the money will line pockets in Miami and have little if any effect in Cuba.

And, finally, the administration has further restricted travel to Cuba, now even appointing a task force “to target those who violate the travel ban.” Announcing the formation of the task force in Miami on October 11, U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta explained its objective as being “to isolate the Castro regime economically and to deprive the Castro regime of the U.S. dollars its so desperately needs.”

Tourism Is Increasing

But in fact, Cuba is not isolated. Even with fewer U.S. visitors, tourism has increased, with visitors from Canada, Europe and Latin America coming in even greater numbers. This then is a futile gesture and those hurt most by it are Cuban-Americans, who can now only visit their families on the island once every three years.

And there is no emergency provision. If a Cuban-American visits his or her mother, let us say, in June, and is then told in September that she is dying, there is no way to obtain an emergency license and be at her bedside. No, that person will have to wait another three years and then visit her grave. This is inhumane–and accomplishes nothing.

Acosta insisted that the October 11 announcement of the task force’s creation was in no way related to the elections coming up on November 7–not at all designed to please hard-line exiles who don’t want anyone traveling. If anyone believes that, please let me know so I may offer you a chance to buy the Brooklyn Bridge.

Luis Posada Carriles

Finally, adding further to our embarrassment, we have the case of Luis Posada Carriles, the arch-terrorist and co-architect of the bombing of the Cubana airliner in 1976. This terrorist act killed 73 people. Posada’s co-architect was Orlando Bosch, another terrorist now living freely in Miami, after having been pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. Posada has been held in El Paso on an immigration charge for the last year and a half. The judge there has pointed out that he cannot be held indefinitely on such a charge. Venezuela has asked for his extradition. In order not to be in violation of our extradition treaty with Venezuela, the administration must either send him to Venezuela or try him on terrorist charges, for which there is ample evidence, in the United States.

The Bush administration apparently intends to do neither. In its brief to the El Paso court, it indicated it is still trying to find a country (a friendly country, that is) to send him to. Meanwhile, given that he is a dangerous character, he should not be released. But the administration did not declare him to be a terrorist under the USA PATRIOT Act, nor apparently does it have any intention of trying him in the U.S. It is in effect harboring this terrorist–giving him safe haven. And yet, Bush has often said that anyone who harbors a terrorist, is a terrorist.

Where does that leave George W. Bush–or, for that matter, George H.W. Bush?

Policy Alternatives

What the U.S. should do is obvious: it should extradite Posada to Venezuela or it should declare him to be and try him as a terrorist here in the United States. It is too late, probably, to try Bosch, but the administration should take the position publicly that henceforth it will not give safehaven to any such known terrorists.

The approach the U.S. should take toward Cuba, rather than the dead-end policy it is now following, is also obvious. The Cold War is over. Cuba poses no threat whatever to the United States. We have normal trade and diplomatic relations with China and Vietnam, two other communist states, so why not with Cuba?

We have disagreements with Cuba to be sure, but surely it would be better to discuss those disagreements through normal diplomatic dialogue rather than refusing to talk. And that diplomatic dialogue should begin immediately, with Raul Castro as Acting President, and should continue should Fidel Castro return to the presidency, which at this point seems unlikely.

The administration (or Congress) should also immediately remove all restrictions on travel to Cuba–restrictions which violate the rights of American citizens and which do not in any way encourage liberalization in Cuba. As Elizardo Sanchez, one of Cuba’s leading human rights activist, has said to me on a number of occasions: “The more American citizens in the streets of Cuban cities, the better for the cause of a more open society.”

Obviously. Indeed, it used to be a veritable maxim with us that the best way to spread the message of American democracy was through the travel of American citizens abroad. Why is that not true of Cuba?

Lifting the embargo will be more complicated and take more time. We would first have to reach some solution to the question of compensation for nationalized U.S. properties. That should not pose an insurmountable obstacle, however. For its part, Cuba has indicated its readiness to negotiate.

It would also be necessary to clear away the legislative obstacles to resumed trade, in particular repealing the Helms-Burton Act and similar legislation. That will take time and is likely to come about only after engagement and dialogue have improved the atmosphere between Havana and Washington. But let us begin the process.

Wayne S. Smith is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. and the former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (1979-82). He is also an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University, where he directs the Cuban Exchange Program, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org).