Fidel Castro’s apparent recuperation sets the stage for a different scenario than that imagined when he fell ill eight months ago. Rather than slowly fade from authority while his successors assume their roles, his return to office now seems possible. The gist of statements from senior Cuban officials is that he will likely return to his duties but in a reduced role. If that is the case, the most important political question in Cuba will then become the size of his role and whether it includes setting strategic direction and approving major decisions. On this score, no one outside Cuba has any information whatsoever. The opinion articles recently published in his name sure sound like him, but they answer none of the key questions about a man who has not been seen in public since last summer.
With that, a roundup of recent events.
Economic policy stall. The lack of movement in economic policy may tell more about Fidel Castro’s status than all the political speculation about Castro himself. Before Castro’s illness, he signaled a need to address structural problems in the Cuban economy, and after he transferred power to his brother, a series of articles in the Cuban press implied that reforms would be necessary to fix problems in state enterprises that could not be attributed to corruption alone. Raul Castro, because of his record of supporting reforms in the 1990’s and his statements expressing impatience with food production, transportation, and housing, created expectations that he would act. Raul Castro also set in motion a study of the state enterprise system of sufficiently wide scope that it could encompass significant economic policy change.
Since then, little has occurred. New regulations on labor discipline, approved last August but delayed in their implementation, were put into effect April 1. But these regulations attack only the symptoms of an economy where wages are insufficient for many workers, public transportation is unreliable, and many state enterprises, as Cuban media have documented, lack a functioning supply system. And the Cuban media announced on April 6 that the “broad and complex” study of state enterprises would produce its first results “within three years.”
A window slams shut. Vitral, a lay Catholic journal of ideas published by the Center for Civic and Religious Education at the Diocese of Pinar del Rio, ceased publication this month after releasing its 78th issue. The journal was an independent, serious, and critical voice, and obviously a rare one in Cuba’s media landscape. Its closure had been rumored since December.
A terse editor’s note in the final issue explained that lack of resources was the cause.
This explanation is hardly credible given the church’s resources, Vitral’s reputation, and the number of people who would jump at the chance to support it.
The more likely explanation involves change in the leadership of the church in Cuba, and possibly in its relationship with the Cuban government. There is a new director of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Havana, and new bishops have been installed in Pinar del Rio, Holguin, Bayamo, and Santiago. As new bishops take charge, they naturally bring change, including to longstanding educational or charitable projects that have been the pride of many Catholics in Cuba and have brought benefit to Cubans of all faiths. One wonders if this move was a unilateral gesture by the new bishop in Pinar del Rio, Jorge Enrique Serpa, or if it was part of a larger church-state bargain that is being developed there or at the national level.
In an interview last November, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon cited Vitral as an example of freedom of expression in Cuba. The journal features “hard criticism” of the Cuban revolution, he said, in contrast to the “moderate posture” of the Cuban Catholic church – and neither its writers nor its subscribers face any trouble whatsoever.
He needs a new example now.
Changing Miami. A new poll from Florida International University shows that in contrast to nearly every result of this same poll since 1991, a majority of Cuban Americans (55%-45%) now favor a U.S. policy of unrestricted travel to Cuba.
The poll results recall the distinction drawn by FIU professor Damian Fernandez in his book Cuba and the Politics of Passion, between Cuban émigrés driven primarily by their anti-Castro passion, and those who, while not lacking that same passion, practice “the politics of affection” and place priority on their connection with Cuba and their care for those they left behind.
There is a clear difference in attitudes based on the time when Cuban Americans arrived in the United States. Compared to those who arrived in the 1959-1964 wave of immigration, a significantly higher number of those who arrived since 1985 favor ending the embargo, ending the travel ban, establishing a national dialogue among exiles, dissidents, and Cuban officials, and re-establishment of full U.S. diplomatic relations with Havana.
The community’s steady evolution toward more moderate views is not fully reflected in voting behavior because most of those who hold those views immigrated more recently and are less likely to vote. Half of those registered to vote, for example, support repeal of the 2004 Bush sanctions that affect family visits and remittances, while four fifths of non-voters favor repeal. A sign of things to come: More than 90% of those who arrived since 1985 say they plan to become U.S. citizens.
Spain sets its own course. The visit of Spain’s foreign minister to Cuba and the agreements he reached with the Cuban government on April 3 mark a break with the common Cuba policy that the European Union has sought to follow since 2003.
The new Cuba-Spain agreements establish a political dialogue that will include human rights issues, talks aimed at resuming Spanish aid projects in Cuba, increased cultural interchange, and the possible return of the Spanish cultural center in Havana, which the Cuban government seized in 2003.
Madrid’s move has drawn strong criticism in Miami and among prominent Cuban dissidents, mainly because the foreign minister did not meet the dissidents during his visit. In Brussels, aficionados of a unified European foreign policy probably lament it too.
While the Spanish government naturally looks out for its economic interests, it is doubtful that economic motives – the promotion of future investment and compensation for Spanish investors whose joint ventures in Cuba were liquidated in recent years – were its primary motivation. Relative to the Spanish economy as a whole, Spain’s economic engagement in Cuba is of minor significance. One could as easily, and just as mistakenly, argue that American policy toward Cuba is driven primarily by the desire to recover property there.
A better guess is that political logic drove the decision.
Spain has five centuries of connection with Cuba and maintains deep contacts across the island today – including with tens of thousands of Cubans who are Spanish by birth and receive economic support through the embassy in Havana. Today, for the first time in decades, Cuba may be seeing change in its political leadership and domestic policies on the horizon. Absent a radical shift in Cuba’s political equation, the most likely source of change is from within the system itself. To follow or to influence Cuba’s evolution requires contact with all the people involved in it – a principle that the Bush Administration itself would surely apply if this were any country but Cuba.
Yet every six months the EU debates its Cuba policy, with the Czech Republic and other governments, cheered on by U.S.-supported groups operating in Europe, pressing for a common posture that would result in diplomacy similar to that practiced by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. That is, a diplomacy based on extensive contacts with dissidents and scarce contact with officials, academics, and others who are not formally part of the opposition.
Given all that, it is little wonder that Madrid decided to set its own course and not to subordinate its diplomatic strategy to a Euro-debate twice a year. Spain, like other U.S. allies, will maintain contacts across the board, including with Cuba’s political opposition.
Spy story. For those who are curious about the story of Ana Montes, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top Cuba analyst who spied for Cuba for 16 years, the publication of an insider account by the principal DIA investigator is a welcome event. True Believer: Inside the Investigation and Capture of Ana Montes, Cuba’s Master Spy (Scott W. Carmichael, Naval Institute Press) is a highly readable account of the tribulations of the counterintelligence officer who first confronted suspicions about Montes in 1996 and led the probe that resulted in her 2001 arrest.
But the two nagging questions in this case – how she was recruited as a spy, and how she damaged American interests – are untouched in this book. Carmichael speculates that as an intelligence officer, Montes distorted the analysis that she wrote for the benefit of U.S. policymakers, but he does not say how. As for her acts of espionage, there is more information in an affidavit the FBI submitted in court than in this book. Carmichael lists bodies of U.S. secrets that Montes might have leaked – about the Cuban American community, about the liberation of Panama in 1989 and Kuwait in 1991, about the conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1980’s – but then states that he doesn’t know if she passed this information to Cuba. He details a 1987 attack on a military base in El Salvador that killed an American soldier and speculates that Montes indirectly helped communist guerrillas prepare for that operation. But did she actually do so? “I don’t know,” Carmichael writes. The book’s proceeds go to the soldier’s family.
There is no doubt that Montes betrayed her country and harmed its interests for much of her career. But if we are ever to learn the details of a story that is now locked up in the intelligence community’s damage assessment reports, it will be through a book quite different from the counterintelligence tale told in True Believer.
The luckiest terrorist. They wished he had never come, and once he came they wished he would leave the way he came in, but he stayed, so Administration officials have had to confront the presence of Luis Posada Carriles on U.S. soil.
We recounted Posada’s history and the early part of this saga here. Posada, 79, whom the Justice Department calls an “admitted mastermind of terrorist plots and attacks,” was charged with immigration fraud and has been in detention since 2005. A federal judge in Texas wants him released pending trial, which would not be unusual for someone facing immigration charges. The Justice Department is appealing the judge’s decision, so far successfully.
Regardless of its eventual outcome, the case has turned the Administration’s anti-terrorism policy on its head. The United States has not brought any terrorism-related charges against Posada. It has not extradited him to Venezuela to face charges related to the bombing of the Cuban airliner in 1976, and while a fair trial would be problematic there, there is no sign that the Administration has sought a different way to bring Posada to justice. Indeed, the Administration’s legal strategy seems to be to do just enough to keep him in detention on immigration charges without confronting the terrorism issue directly, and certainly without using any of the creative, muscular, stop-at-nothing legal tactics employed against terrorists and enemy combatants associated with Al Qaeda.
Last August the Administration revealed in court that it had asked six countries to take him in. All of them – Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – declined. Had he been given refuge, it is not clear whether the host country would be considered “with us” or “with the terrorists.”
The missed opportunity here, apart from consistency in the anti-terrorism policy that the Administration casts in clear moral terms, is one of communication with the Cuban people. Secretary of State Rice tells the Cuban people they have “no greater friend” than the United States. There is no better way to demonstrate that friendship, and to tear recent Cuban propaganda to shreds, than to find a way to bring to justice a man that the United States holds in custody and labels a terrorist, and who had a role in an attack that is as clearly marked on the Cuban psyche as the Lockerbie murders are on Americans’.
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