As the President prepares to address Cuban Americans at a White House ceremony today, he faces a situation where his Cuba policy and his Cuban American political strategy may both fall short of their objectives.
The Administration has stated the goal of “promoting a rapid and peaceful transition to democracy” in Cuba, yet neither its current policies nor new proposals being discussed lead rapidly to that destination. With 75 Cuban dissidents recently jailed, the Administration’s goal seems more distant than before.
Meanwhile, the Administration’s key Cuban American constituency is increasingly noticing the gap between ends and means in Cuba policy, and is increasingly impatient to see it closed. But it is not clear that the Administration is willing to satisfy those who want a declaration in favor of regime change in Cuba and a policy to deliver that result.
This report outlines the main areas of the Bush Cuba policy, the political context, and new measures the Administration might take as it considers ways to respond to the recent crackdown against Cuban dissidents.
While ample attention is paid to the Administration’s debate with Democrats and Republicans who promote engagement with Cuba, there is also pressure from hard-liners pressing from the opposite direction to maintain or increase sanctions.
Two years ago, expectations were high that the Bush Administration, given its campaign positions and its Florida electoral experience, would make significant changes in Cuba policy. However, no significant action came during the Administration’s first year, leading Joe Garcia of the Cuban American National Foundation to say that in 2001 President Bush had implemented “the ninth year of the Clinton policy” on Cuba.
The recess appointment of Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich again raised expectations that Cuba policy would change. In January 2002, the Administration announced that it would formally review Cuba policy.
The result of that review, the “Initiative for a New Cuba,” came on last year’s Cuban Independence Day, May 20, 2002. Contrary to expectations, the initiative was a series of relatively small steps that did not reflect a top-to-bottom review of strategy and tactics toward the communist island. As if to acknowledge the modesty of the Initiative, the President called it a set of “beginning steps” and said that he would consult “leaders in the community for innovative ways” to expand it.
Today, dissatisfaction among hard-liners continues. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote to the President on January 23, 2003 to complain that the Administration has not implemented a series of measures that Congressional proponents of a hard-line policy have advocated. She notes that the Administration, among other things:
* has not used the Helms-Burton law to penalize foreign investors in Cuba;
* has not worked in the United Nations to press for a global trade embargo of Cuba;
* has not directly pressed Cuba’s trade partners to end their trade and credits to Cuba “in a manner consistent with United States policy;”
* has not sought an indictment of “the Castro regime” for the 1996 shootdown of the Brothers to the Rescue aircraft over the Straits of Florida; and
* has neither reviewed nor revoked the policy whereby Cuban migrants interdicted at sea are, pursuant to an agreement with the Cuban government, returned to Cuba.
Rep. Ros-Lehtinen told El Nuevo Herald on May 8, “I don’t think I am ever going to receive a reply” to the letter.
And in the context of the recent crackdown on Cuban dissidents, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart wrote President Bush to urge that he stop focusing on “collateral issues at the margin of the Cuban tragedy” and instead act to “end the 44-year totalitarian nightmare of the Cuban people.”
Embargo, carrots, and sticks
Food sales. Not by its own choice, the Administration has presided over a significant rupture in the trade embargo: the sale of more than $200 million in U.S. food and agricultural products to Cuba since the fall of 2001, made possible by a law enacted just before President Bush took office.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told Congress in April 2001 that the Administration was “pleased that the sales are taking place,” while then-Assistant Secretary Otto Reich later complained that the sales harm the U.S. national interest because they are “delaying the transition to democracy in Cuba.”
Helms-Burton. The Administration has continued President Clinton’s practice of waiving Title III of the 1996 Helms-Burton law, which would allow Cuban Americans to use U.S. courts to press claims for properties in Cuba that were expropriated from them by the Cuban government in the early 1960’s when they were Cuban nationals. Because Presidents Clinton and Bush have waived this title every six months since the law was enacted, it has never gone into effect.
The Administration has not used Title IV of that same law to impose sanctions against foreign investors in Cuba whose investments allegedly touch properties expropriated from American nationals. Title IV sanctions were imposed by the Clinton Administration in two cases only.
In last year’s May 20 speech, President Bush distanced himself from a key provision of the Helms-Burton law by defining new circumstances under which sanctions might be eased.
Helms-Burton took away the executive branch’s discretion to ease U.S. sanctions in response to positive changes in Cuba. Instead, it lists traits of a democratic transition – including freed political prisoners, a free press, independent trade unions, and election of a government that does not include Fidel Castro or his brother Raul – that must be satisfied before U.S. sanctions can be eased.
President Bush declared that if the 2003 legislative elections in Cuba were “certified as free and fair by international monitors,” and if Cuba embarked on a “process of meaningful economic reform,” then he would “explore ways with the United States Congress to ease economic sanctions.”
This statement did not commit the President to a specific course of action, but it makes a clear break with the Helms-Burton law by envisioning circumstances, however hypothetical or unlikely, where the Administration could ask Congress to reduce U.S. sanctions with Fidel Castro still in office. Through this statement, the Administration indirectly addressed a criticism of this part of U.S. policy: that the Helms-Burton law is anti-democratic because it stipulates that even after an election held under ideal conditions, no Cuban government is “democratically elected” if includes Fidel or Raul Castro in any capacity.
Travel and remittances
Since taking office, the Administration has slowed licensing of Cuba travel and enforced the travel ban against Americans who violate the travel regulations. The sum of its policies seems to be to favor travel by Cuban Americans and to reduce the scope for travel by all other Americans.
The Cuban American community has been effectively exempted from enforcement actions. In response to Congressional inquiries, Administration officials have not provided information on a single case of enforcement against a Cuban American for excessive travel for family visits or delivery of remittances. This is in spite of the fact that the President called for such enforcement in July 2001, and embargo enforcement serves the Administration’s policy objective of limiting the flow of hard currency to Cuba. Cuban Americans account for about three fourths of U.S. travel to Cuba, delivering hundreds of millions in remittances, much of which eventually reaches Cuban state accounts when remittances are spent in the state’s chain of retail stores.
In spite of the Administration’s intention to promote policies that “help the people, not the regime,” it opposed a House amendment, passed last July, to repeal limits on family remittances. The Administration supports the current limit of $100 per month per Cuban household, but has eased limits on the amount of cash that travelers can carry to deliver remittances to multiple households. It also eased the already minor (and unenforced) limitations on Cuban Americans’ travel.
Last March, the Administration eliminated an entire travel category – non-degree educational programs with a people-to-people component – that has allowed thousands of Americans not of Cuban descent to travel to Cuba, to learn about the island, and to meet diverse Cubans for discussions on a wide variety of topics.
AID grants, aid to dissidents
The President declared in July 2001 that he would “expand support for human rights activists and the democratic opposition” and “provide additional funding for non-governmental organizations to work on pro-democracy programs in Cuba.”
Section 109 of the Helms-Burton Act authorized a program to promote a transition to democracy in Cuba through Agency for International Development grants that would, in AID’s words, “increase the flow of information about democracy, human rights, and free enterprise to, from, and within Cuba.”
The program supports organizations that aim to assist Cuban dissidents and independent journalists, help Cubans develop independent organizations, defend worker rights, engage in “planning for transition,” and conduct research.
From its inception to May 2002, $15.5 million was obligated under this program. The Bush Administration has continued this program, obligating about $4.6 million more since that date.
Under this program, AID grantees may provide resources to dissidents in Cuba. The Bush Administration has continued the Clinton Administration policy of barring direct cash assistance to dissidents – but AID grantees are free to provide cash from funds they raise from other sources. This aspect of the program has received attention recently because of Cuba’s claims that the U.S. government’s material support buttressed its charges that the dissidents were engaged in conspiracy.
Other funds support work in the United States. The Administration has provided about $2 million to the University of Miami to study issues related to the Cuban transition. (A similar project was performed during the first Bush Administration.) The current project is directed by Jaime Suchlicki, the University’s Emilio Bacardi Moreau professor of history and international studies. The initial grant was announced at a Miami ceremony where AID official Adolfo Franco termed the study project “a vital new endeavor that will bring hope to the Cuban people.”
Radio and TV Marti
In July 2001, President Bush instructed the director of Radio and TV Marti to “use all available means to overcome the jamming of Radio and TV Marti.” To date, no action has been announced in this area. Overcoming Cuban jamming is a difficult technical challenge; the distance from the U.S. transmitters to the target audience gives Cuba a significant technical advantage in blocking the signals. Moreover, especially in the case of TV Marti, international broadcasting agreements limit America’s ability to increase signal strength. Radio and TV Marti signals have been placed on the Internet (see martinoticias.com), but this is of very limited value in Cuba because Internet bandwidth is severely limited entering Cuba and within Cuba, and because the Internet itself is not widely accessible.
Radio and TV Marti continue to be criticized for lack of balance and accuracy in coverage of events in Cuba and in the United States, for poor quality commentary, and for allowing political factors to color news judgment. For example, Radio Marti delayed broadcasting the news of the seizure of Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives for four hours, and it waited one day before broadcasting the speech of former President Jimmy Carter at the University of Havana, in which Carter praised the activities of Cuban dissidents. In both cases, Cuban media covered these important breaking stories before Radio Marti; the Carter speech was broadcast live. President Carter’s visit was preceded by a commentary by a Radio Marti commentary by Miami commercial talk show host Armando Perez Roura which blamed Carter for turning over Nicaragua to communism and Iran to the Ayatollah Khomeini, and predicted that Carter’s visit to Cuba would “stab with a dagger [the cause of] freedom in Cuba.” (To sample the debate about Radio Marti’s program quality, see the record of a hearing in the House International Relations Committee June 6, 2002.)
Early this month, a new director of Radio Marti, Pedro Roig, took charge and announced a “restructuring” of programming to ensure that “truth, professionalism, and objectivity be the foundation of the news.” “This is an agency of the United States government,” he told Miami’s El Nuevo Herald. “Our midpoint is not between Washington and Moscow or between Washington and Havana, but between San Francisco and New York.”
The Administration has charged that Cuba represents a threat to American national security, but apart from an expulsion of diplomats of the type that the United States and other countries do routinely after discovering espionage activities, the Administration seems to have taken no action to address its security concerns.
The Administration alleges that a 1998 intelligence community assessment “underplayed” the Cuban threat to U.S. security because of the involvement of Cuban agent and former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Ana Belen Montes in that product. The Administration has produced no new intelligence assessment to support its conclusion.
Undersecretary of State John Bolton alleges that Cuba has a biological weapons “effort” under way, a claim that the Secretaries of State and Defense have contradicted. The Administration has taken no action to promote inspections or any increased scrutiny of Cuba’s biotechnology program, and it has not used diplomacy to test Cuban offers to make its biotechnology industry available for scrutiny.
The Administration has continued two active avenues of U.S.-Cuba cooperation on security issues: the migration accords, which aim to curtail illegal migration, and the limited cooperation in drug enforcement, which includes a U.S. Coast Guard officer posted at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. However, this year it is falling far short of the American commitment under the immigration accords to issue 20,000 immigrant visas per year; in the first half of the fiscal year, fewer than 3,000 were issued.
On May 20, 2002, President Bush said he would create a scholarship program for Cubans who are building independent civic institutions and for children of political prisoners.
This proposal was the result of a debate within the Administration in which some advocated a broader program that would not apply these political criteria to participants. As a practical matter, explicitly political criteria tend to doom U.S.-Cuba academic contacts because the Cuban government refuses to accommodate U.S. government programs designed to undermine socialism. In addition, it is argued that non-political academic programs benefit the American national interest because they expose all Cubans, including those who support socialism and those who engage in no political activity, to American ideas.
The Administration designed an initial pilot program for 20 Cuban students who would attend two-year junior colleges, but the program has not moved forward. Based on past experience, it seems unlikely that the program will get off the ground because Cuba is not likely to grant visas to students selected according to the Administration’s criteria.
Options for responding to the crackdown
Today, on Cuban Independence Day, the Administration is under considerable pressure to respond strongly to the summary trials and long sentences handed to 75 Cuban dissidents last month. But with a comprehensive set of economic sanctions in place already, its options are limited.
One hard-line group, the Cuban Liberty Council, has called for a ban on all remittances and an end to direct flights to Havana. Such a step would reduce hard currency flows to Cuba, but at a steep cost – remittances are a lifeline that enables many thousands of Cuban families to improve their diet and housing, and to start small enterprises. To the extent it would hurt the Cuban economy, a cutoff of remittances would also increase the pressures that drive Cubans to migrate illegally to the United States.
No Administration official has embraced this proposal. Possibly, the expulsion last week of 14 Cuban diplomats for alleged espionage was intended as a substitute – a tough, dramatic action that would win favor among hard-liners, and give the Administration a way to decline to cut remittances and flights to Cuba.
Another option is a diplomatic campaign to condemn Cuba’s human rights practices and to increase international pressure on the Cuban economy. This is a difficult proposition for the United States, because nearly all governments are consistently on the record in opposition to the U.S. embargo. There has been very broad international condemnation of Cuba’s crackdown, but this sentiment does not seem to translate into support for U.S. policy. Just yesterday, for example, the Organization of American States debated but did not adopt a mild statement calling attention to Cuba’s human rights practices.
Find Archived Articles: