Op Ed Published in The Miami Herald
The Bush Administration is a bind over Cuba. President Bush is preparing to announce a policy response tomorrow, which is Cuban Independence Day. But with 75 dissidents recently jailed in Cuba, Bush’s goal of a “rapid and peaceful transition” is more distant than ever. None of the measures now in place promise to achieve it, and none of the policies proposed by the administration would, either. One such proposal is ending all family remittances and direct flights to Cuba – but they would painfully punish Cuban families for their government’s misdeeds.
Meanwhile, hardliners are making clear that the Bush’s approach last May 20, when he rallied a Miami audience with strong rhetoric and weak measures, won’t work today. They want tough action.
The real significance of this week’s expulsion of Cuban diplomats may be that it looks tough and will earn Bush political credit where he needs it in the Cuban American community – perhaps enough that if he declines to cut off flights and remittances, hardliners will not complain.
Bush also faces calls to seek “regime change” in Cuba. But America’s diplomatic energy and political capital are needed to confront genuine security threats such as North Korea and international terrorism.
That may be why Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently downplayed talk of conflict with Cuba. “We care about the people of Cuba,” he said, but “we recognize we can’t try to make everyone in the world be like we are.” Actually, the Administration is trying very hard in Cuba, and getting nowhere.
With current policy at a dead end and military action rightly ruled out, America should aim for long-term influence in Cuba, just as we do in China and Vietnam. Here are four initial steps:
- Bush should preserve remittances and direct flights for sound moral reasons. These are lifelines that enable countless Cubans to eat well, improve their housing or start family businesses.
- Radio Martí can be a valuable instrument, but it needs an overhaul, not a budget increase. It should be moved back to Washington, placed under Voice of America control, and expected to meet high standards of quality journalism and commentary. After two years of work, the Bush Administration has not solved TV Martí’s problem – it has no audience – so this $15 million annual abuse of the American taxpayer should be ended.
- The Administration should re-assess its conduct toward Cuba’s dissidents. U.S. diplomats are not to blame for their arrests, and there is nothing wrong about handing out books or holding meetings with political activists.
But the administration’s stepped-up activity in Havana blundered spectacularly into the hands of Cuban state security, which had agents highly placed throughout Cuba’s fledgling opposition movement and in close contact with the U.S. Interests Section. The provision of materials and cash from U.S.-funded organizations became the basis for the dissidents’ trials. Surely it is fair to ask whether this was a smart strategy, and whether the dissidents are well served by more of the same.
* In travel policy, President Bush should follow what Cuban Americans do, not what they say.
Through their constant travel and the help they provide their families in Cuba, Cuban Americans are endorsing a policy of engagement. Their noble actions are not based on illusions about the nature of Cuba’s government.
Bush should also listen to pro-democracy voices in Cuba, too. In the past month, dissident leaders Oswaldo Payá, Elizardo Sanchez, and Vladimiro Roca, joined by Cuba’s Catholic Church, have reiterated their opposition to the U.S. travel ban. Cubans want contact with Americans.
But Bush has been moving in the opposite direction – last March he abolished people-to-people programs that connected thousands of Americans and Cubans each year. He should do more than reverse that decision; he should drop the travel ban entirely. All Americans – not only Cuban Americans – can do good deeds in Cuba, and deserve freedom to travel without federal bureaucrats poring over their itineraries.
Cuba’s intelligence service might be disappointed, and the Treasury Department’s travel regulators would have to turn to more productive pursuits. But America’s long-term interest would be served as we unleash our greatest source of influence – our free people – on a place that, now more than ever, sorely needs it.
Philip Peters, a State Department official in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush Administrations, is vice president of the Lexington Institute.
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