With the world’s attention focused on political change in Iraq, the Bush Administration is making plans for a transition closer to home, in Cuba.
The Administration has created a commission to devise methods to hasten a transition to democracy in Cuba or, as the Voice of America reported when the commission first convened, to hasten the removal of Cuban President Fidel Castro without using force.
The commission consists entirely of government officials representing 21 federal agencies (State, Homeland Security, EPA, Veterans Affairs, etc. but not the Pentagon), and will make its initial report to the President by May 1.
The Administration projects confidence. Adolfo Franco, the top Latin America official of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told a recent Washington gathering, There will be change in Cuba, and it will come under George Bush. Cuban socialism is in its final days, according to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.
Hard-line Cuban Americans of political importance to the Administration have complained that the President’s Cuba policy has been ineffective. They know what they want to see in Cuba systemic change, not a China-style model of gradual reform. Administration spokesmen echo that sentiment, vowing to press for a full transition to democracy rather than succession from one socialist administration to another.
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So the commission has two tasks: to plan aid to Cuba after its transition, and to plan ways to hasten the arrival of the transition itself.
Relatively speaking, the long-range planning of an aid program is the easy part. Delivery of assistance presupposes a free and democratic Cuba that is friendly to the United States and requests assistance, according to White House official Otto Reich.
According to a published outline of the commission’s work, the aid program will help to establish institutions of a democratic political system and market economy; support national reconciliation; and assist in modernizing infrastructure, meeting social welfare needs, and protecting the environment. A thorough effort to meet those goals in a country of 11 million could carry a very large price tag.
Interestingly, the outline also contemplates providing adjustment assistance to Cuban security institutions, which could mean anything from revamping the institutions themselves to paying salaries of large numbers of military, intelligence, and police personnel after an Iraq-style decision to disband those institutions entirely.
A support structure for the planning effort has been created through government grants to the University of Miami’s Cuba Transition Project, a wide-ranging research and communications project. The University convened a Washington conference January 16 to discuss one of its research topics: how, if political change were to come to Cuba, and if it were accompanied by a breakdown in food supply and basic services, U.S. aid could be provided.
The conference generally steered clear of political issues. To the credit of the project’s leader, Jaime Suchlicki, it aired a range of views, including some that are highly controversial in Miami. Two speakers described a Cuban public health system that is under strain but that also has considerable strengths, and they argued that any aid program should build on those strengths. Others ventured into political scenarios and speculated that disorder and a humanitarian emergency could be caused by exiles returning to Cuba to join a struggle for power.
Suchlicki himself, in a recent essay, argues realistically that after Fidel Castro’s passing, regime continuity is the most likely outcome. State enterprises, the government bureaucracy, and other Cuban institutions are strong, he argues; the continued loyalty of the armed forces appears highly likely, and Cuba’s dissidents are weak and do not represent a major threat.
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Hastening the transition, then, is the hard part, for a simple reason: when it comes to precipitating political change in Cuba, the Administration has strong desires and weak options. As a result, the commission might fail to convince the key Miami constituency that its plans will in fact produce political change.
The commission’s work plan says that Cuba’s transition will be hastened by supporting political opponents of the Cuban government, providing humanitarian aid, enforcing the embargo, and encouraging international solidarity.
Each of these options is problematic.
Opposition aid. The Bush Administration has given more material support and more moral support to the opposition than ever before, according to Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega.
Cuba’s jailing of 75 dissidents last spring was the worst crackdown since the 1996 actions against the opposition umbrella group Concilio Cubano. It rattled but did not silence the fledgling opposition movement. The Varela Project, a pro-reform petition drive, attracted 14,000 new signatures, which were delivered to Cuba’s National Assembly last October. Nonetheless, the dissident movement does not enjoy overt public support and is unknown by many Cubans. Apart from small demonstrations by relatives of jailed dissidents and criticism from the Catholic Church, there was not a single public protest in response to the spring crackdown.
A new development was the return of Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo, leader of Cambio Cubano, the first Miami-based opposition figure to take up residence in Cuba. Since last August, Gutierrez Menoyo has been in Havana seeking legal space for his organization to build an opposition without foreign interference.
Other dissidents may not see U.S. aid as interference, but they are acutely aware that U.S. support was the basis of the Cuban government’s charges against the 75 jailed dissidents. Moreover, they know that Cuban state security agents were placed in key positions in the opposition movement 12 agents were uncovered in the course of last year’s trials and the possibility that other agents may be operating heightens the risk of accepting foreign support of any kind.
As the U.S. Agency for International Development solicits new proposals for grants to assist Cuban dissidents, it now requires that any organization that would aid dissidents in Cuba must first warn them that their connection with U.S. aid could lead them to the same fate as the 75 jailed last spring. It also requires that the U.S. government approve in advance the dissidents that would receive U.S. resources a provision of great propaganda value to the Cuban government, which argues that the Cuban opposition is directed by the United States.
Embargo enforcement. The Administration has made good on its pledge to tighten the embargo and travel restrictions. Last year, it abolished the category of travel most used by Americans not of Cuban descent educational programs with a people-to-people component. And now, fully one sixth of the resources of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control a unit whose duties include disrupting terrorists financial networks are devoted to Cuba activities. Since a new enforcement order last October 10, federal agents have conducted more than 95,000 inspections of passengers going to or arriving from Cuba, detecting 275 persons who were not authorized to go to Cuba, and 376 who returned with prohibited items.
If the Administration intends to further reduce hard currency flows to Cuba through new travel restrictions, it would need to reduce Cuban American travel to have a significant impact. However, the Administration has resisted this idea, and in fact it liberalized rules governing family visits and delivery of remittances. Even a complete cutoff of U.S. travel would reduce Cuba’s foreign visits by only about five percent. A new action to cut remittances would belie the Administration’s humanitarian intent by penalizing Cuban families who receive support from relatives in the United States.
International solidarity. Last spring’s crackdown on dissidents was widely condemned by foreign governments, organizations, and individuals interested in Cuba. It dashed Cuba’s prospects of joining the Cotonou accord, a system of EU trade preferences, and it chilled Europe’s diplomatic relations with Cuba. However, no nation has adopted the American approach of using trade and travel sanctions to punish the Cuban economy.
Meanwhile, Cuba has seen improvement in its relations with Latin America. Last year the President of Brazil visited Havana, and Argentina re-established full diplomatic relations with fanfare, sending its foreign minister to accompany the new Ambassador to Havana on a trip that had the air of a state visit. At last November’s Ibero-American summit, leaders of the hemisphere, joined by Spain and Portugal, expressed an energetic rejectionof extraterritorial laws and measures that are contrary to international law and as a result we exhort the U.S. government to end the enforcement of the Helms-Burton law.
And last September, a European parliament resolution expressed condemnation both of Cuba’s jailing of dissidents and of the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
In this environment, stepped-up U.S. diplomatic efforts could yield new statements in support of human rights, although in the cases of Brazil and Argentina, recent State Department efforts seem to have backfired. New U.S. appeals would seem to have little prospect of encouraging greater isolation of Cuba beyond the actions European governments have already taken on their own.
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A beefed-up U.S. policy of aid to dissidents, exhortations to the international community, and policing of American travelers could add to pressures on Cuba’s 45-year-old socialist government, but it would have scant prospects for producing political change. These actions are relatively marginal in Cuba’s political equation, where the Cuban government is not as weak as Washington portrays. This may lead the commission to produce, as its centerpiece, an elaborate future aid plan for a democratic Cuba in that task, after all, its options are unlimited.
If circumstances ever arise where the aid program would be put into effect, or other changes in policy toward Cuba would need to be made, the Administration will need Congressional support. As the Administration ponders these challenges, it seems to be making no effort to build a policy that enjoys strong bipartisan support. Indeed, apart from broad agreement on human rights issues, Congress is marching in an opposite direction on Cuba policy. The House of Representatives has voted four years in a row to end travel restrictions, and the Senate followed suit last year with a 59-36 vote that was supported by the Republican chairmen of the Foreign Relations, Intelligence, and Armed Services Committees. The measure ultimately failed because of an Administration-instigated move where House and Senate leaders set aside established Congressional procedure, defied both houses majorities, and stripped it from the bill that went to the President’s desk.
Meanwhile, as the commission deliberates, a potential source of strong economic pressure on Cuba could develop in Venezuela. If a special recall election this year cuts short President Chavez term in office, Cuba’s preferentially priced supplies of Venezuelan oil would be in jeopardy. Following Venezuela’s constitution, the recall vote would be triggered upon certification of an opposition-sponsored petition that is now under evaluation. Those who hope that a Venezuelan recall vote will bring new economic troubles to Cuba should first hope that Venezuelan authorities, as they decide whether to allow a recall to proceed, do not take procedural cues from the leadership of the U.S. Congress.
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