Why is it necessary for the Administration’s inter-agency committee on Cuba policy – the “Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba” – to issue a second report this year?
Cuba is not a burning issue in U.S. foreign policy, and it is not clear that it is a high priority for the Administration. The President’s 2006 State of the Union address listed Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and other countries – but not Cuba – as places where “the demands of justice, and the peace of this world, require their freedom.”
If the Administration wants to adopt new sanctions or set a new tone in Cuba policy, a formal commission report is not needed. The first report, issued in 2004, did not lack substance: Its 458 pages promised new economic sanctions; new informational efforts toward Cuba (via Radio and TV Marti) and Europe (through grants to European advocacy organizations), and aid to carry out a detailed vision of reform if Cuba abandons socialism and seeks U.S. help.
Nonetheless, things have changed since 2004. The President’s second inaugural address envisioned “ending tyranny in our world.” His new foreign policy leadership includes a new Latin America team and a Cuba transition coordinator. Secretary of State Rice is instituting a “transformational diplomacy” that “not only reports about the world as it is, but seeks to change the world itself.” International information efforts, now led by the President’s close advisor Karen Hughes, are called “transformational public diplomacy.”
If the Administration’s new team tries to apply these ideas to Cuba, it will encounter challenges – some posed by conditions in Cuba, others by the policy it inherits from the Administration’s first term.
Ends and means are mismatched
The Administration does not apply the term “regime change” to its Cuba policy, but it clearly aims to change Cuba’s political order – to “hasten the end of the dictatorship in Cuba,” in Secretary Rice’s words. When the commission’s 2004 report was released, the State Department announced that when Cuban President Fidel Castro leaves office, the United States “will not accept a succession scenario,” and “there will not be a succession” from one socialist government to another.
Those tough words are not matched by strong measures. On the island where, according to former CIA director Porter Goss last year, “Castro’s hold on power remains firm,” the Administration’s policies seem to have no prospect of being politically decisive.
Sanctions. Following the assumption that the ups and downs of the Cuban government’s hard currency earnings affect its hold on power, the Administration tightened economic sanctions on Cuba in 2004 and estimates that it has cut Cuban hard currency earnings by $500 million per year. Meanwhile, the CIA estimates that Cuba’s economy grew at a rate of eight percent last year, a $3 billion increase in economic output. Advances in the tourism, mining, and energy industries, combined with credits and subsidies from Venezuela and China and relationships with other economic partners, are allowing Cuba to absorb, if not ignore, the impact of Washington’s new sanctions. Officials argue that the sanctions drain resources that Cuban security agencies need for surveillance and repression of political dissidents – but reports from Cuba indicate, if anything, that the repression is increasing. The sanctions seem to have two consequences: They hurt the Cuban families who are their direct target, and they are a propaganda boon to the Cuban government.
Opposition aid. Cuba’s dissidents are valiant, and they have advanced important alternative public policy ideas. The Varela Project, a pro-reform petition drive, moved the opposition from the realm of human rights monitoring and policy criticism to citizen participation.
Yet by any measure, Cuba’s opposition is not in an advanced state of development as a political movement. The signs that marked the growth in Eastern Europe’s anti-communist opposition movements – large public demonstrations, the co-opting of state and party institutions such as official labor unions – are not present in Cuba.
Cuba’s opposition faces significant obstacles. Many Cubans, especially youth, are disaffected from politics of any stripe. Dissatisfied Cubans rarely think of joining an opposition group – they concentrate on resolving immediate family needs, or they see emigration as a more promising solution. Moreover, Cubans know that dissident groups are infiltrated. In 2003, Havana unmasked twelve state security agents in the opposition’s ranks; their stories were then told in detail in Cuban print and broadcast media. Aid from the U.S. government or other outside sources does not seem to be the key variable affecting the movement’s strength.
The Cuban Democratic Directorate, a Miami organization that receives U.S. government funds, reports each year on the Cuban opposition’s activities. Its latest report showed a 36 percent increase in the number of opposition actions between 2003 and 2004, from 1,328 to 1,805. However, the report described a decrease in the “intensity” of those actions because most – 1,701, or 94 percent – are vigils in homes on behalf of political prisoners, protests carried out by prisoners themselves, or similar activities. Meanwhile, acts of more direct confrontation with the government declined 74 percent between 2002 and 2004. (The private vigils account for more than 1,300 of the actions. The report documents 26 per week, cutting and pasting verbatim two pages of text that repeat the same details for each vigil every Wednesday throughout the year: “between four and six” people meeting in Cabaiguan, “ten activists” in Caibarien, “between 15 and 20 activists” in Nueva Gerona, etc.)
Broadcasting. The 2004 commission report emphasized efforts to strengthen the signal of Radio and TV Marti, including purchase of an airplane fitted with transmitters, to overcome Cuban jamming. However, while Radio Marti’s AM signal is jammed, its shortwave signal is not. In spite of the fact that many Cubans have shortwave radios, Radio Marti’s weekly listenership stands at only 1.7 percent of the Cuban audience, according to a 2005 Administration estimate.
A political communications failure
It is debatable whether the 2004 commission report was designed strictly according to political objectives in southern Florida. But there is ample evidence that as an exercise in political communication, it backfired in Cuba.
The report contained hundreds of pages of suggested reforms – remaking the educational and judicial systems, economic transformation, infrastructure, etc. – and U.S. aid to help implement them. Each idea was presented as an offer that could be accepted or rejected by a future Cuban government. However, the volume and detail of the plan led independent Cubans, with few exceptions, to perceive it as a potential imposition rather than a friendly offer. Dissidents roundly criticized it, and Cuba’s Catholic bishops said its measures “threaten both the present and the future of our nation.” Just last month, anticipating a second commission report, dissident leader Oswaldo Paya warned, “We do not accept transition programs made outside of Cuba.” In apparent response, Administration officials now stress a supporting U.S. role in Cuba, rather than a protagonistic one. Secretary Rice emphasizes that a “genuine transition … must be led by the people of Cuba.”
Several provisions of the plan were particularly harmful because they contributed to Cubans’ fears that political change could cause them to lose what they have. Cuban media – in cartoons, television and radio spots, and billboard advertising – have highlighted the report’s provisions indicating that Cubans might be evicted from their homes by former owners returning from abroad, Cubans might have to pay for health and education services, and retirees might have to return to work. “You are doing our work for us,” a senior Cuban official commented to a visiting Congressional delegation last year. Indeed, it is not hard to find Cubans who have ambiguous or antagonistic views toward their government, but who have come to view free health care and education as rights, and who would unambiguously resist any attempt to take away their homes.
Nor did Cubans applaud the measures that restricted, and in some cases terminated, Cuban Americans’ ability to visit their loved ones in Cuba or to assist them by sending cash. A January 2006 editorial in the Cuban Catholic journal Vitral charged that the “right to travel freely … is systematically violated by both the Cuban and American governments.” The editorial continued, “This violation of a fundamental human right is an unjust measure against the Cuban family.”
The influence gap
Under President Bush, U.S. policy toward Cuba has been marked by an increasing ambition to change Cuba, coupled with reduced contact with the Cubans who would decide whether and how to change their own country.
It is hard to imagine that the Administration would propose exchanges and scholarships for Cuban students as it has done for Iranian students, or that the Pentagon would engage the Cuban military in professional exchanges as it now does with officers of China’s People’s Liberation Army. As a result, no doubt to Fidel Castro’s delight, U.S. outreach to key sectors such as youth and the military is almost nonexistent. Private contacts that Secretary Rice and others praise in other contexts – people-to-people exchanges, religious and academic programs – have in the case of Cuba been reduced or eliminated by tightened U.S. regulations.
Official contacts are similarly reduced. The Administration ended the semiannual talks that reviewed the U.S.-Cuba migration accords. Reciprocal restrictions on diplomats’ movements prevent U.S. diplomats from traveling outside Havana. And U.S. diplomats have very little access to Cubans who serve in official capacities, beyond the Cuban foreign ministry officials assigned to North America affairs.
Even contacts promoted by the U.S. government have suffered because the Cuban government will not facilitate, and many Cubans will not join, programs that are part of a U.S. policy to change Cuba’s political order. A $425,000 U.S. government grant to Loyola University was to support American students teaching Cubans at a Catholic social services center in Havana – but Loyola aborted the program before it began at the request of its partners in Cuba once the source and purpose of the U.S. funding became known. A $400,000 grant to Georgetown University, intended to educate civil society activists and children of political prisoners, went no further than Georgetown’s bank account. # # # # #
The matter of U.S. contacts and influence will take on greater salience on the day when Cuba’s post-Castro era begins.
Washington will be well prepared if Cuba promptly enters a transition to democracy and free markets. But in the more likely event that Cuba carries out a constitutional succession to a new socialist government, the United States will face challenges that are all but ignored in the 2004 commission report. Should Washington begin a dialogue with the successor government in Havana? What should the message be? What should trigger an easing of U.S. sanctions, or should they be dropped unilaterally?
Then there is a challenge posed by the 1996 Helms-Burton law, which took away the President’s authority to ease or end the embargo at will. Now, before beginning to lift the embargo, the President must certify that Cuba meets a list of conditions including the release of all political prisoners, legalization of all political activity, a commitment to internationally supervised elections, an end to jamming of Radio and TV Marti and permission for privately owned media, freedom for trade unions and other private associations, steps toward resolution of property claims, and the absence of Fidel and Raul Castro from government.
This leads to what some see as a nightmare scenario: A successor government led by Raul Castro a) undertakes economic or other reforms, b) wins some political support at home because the reforms produce results, and c) enters a positive diplomatic dynamic with U.S. allies who, like the United States in the cases of China and Vietnam, applaud reforms that fall short of systemic change. Absent a change in law, the United States would be sidelined, maintaining sanctions and distant relations until the full checklist of conditions is met.
Perhaps this is why Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart said last March that the Helms-Burton checklist should be reduced to three conditions – freedom for political prisoners, legalization of political parties, and establishment of a plan for national elections – whereupon he would be prepared to deal with Raul Castro.
Whether or not one agrees with that prescription, it is hard to dispute the Congressman’s implicit premise that the Helms-Burton checklist is excessive. It takes all diplomatic options away from the President and forces him to deal in all-or-nothing propositions.
It also bears noting that given Cuba’s improved economic position, normalized relations with the United States and an end to the embargo may not be urgent priorities for Castro’s immediate successors. In its old age, the embargo is neither the carrot nor the stick that it used to be.
The Administration has a tried-and-true formula for Cuba policy initiatives: embellished U.S. sanctions, hot rhetoric, and government spending programs centered mainly in south Florida. This achieves a pretense of toughness, but does little to promote change in Cuba and frequently provides political support to the Cuban government.
No one expects wholesale policy changes in the next report of the Administration’s Cuba commission. But the report will tell if “transformational diplomacy,” applied to Cuba, will produce a policy more attuned to the difficult political realities of the country it aims to transform.
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