Posted August 10, 2006 (August 28, 2006 issue)
Wayne S. Smith
Even as we move closer to a post-Castro Cuba, there has been no easing of the Bush Administration's hardline policy. That Washington's instincts are confrontational became clear in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, when Cuba expressed solidarity with the American people, called for dialogue and offered to sign bilateral agreements for joint efforts against terrorism. The Bush Administration rebuffed even those overtures and instead began calling for Castro's downfall. By 2003 this had led to the formation of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, and by May 2004 to a 500-page action plan to bring an end to the Castro regime. Making it sound as though the regime was on the verge of collapse, economy and all, and that just a few more nudges would do it, the plan included measures to (1) tightly limit the travel of Americans to Cuba, including some painful new restrictions on the travel of Cuban-Americans; (2) increase Radio and TV Martí broadcasting; and (3) provide increased assistance to dissidents and other representatives of civil society in Cuba.
Also, the massive plan almost seemed to envisage a US occupation of Cuba so that we could show Cubans how to reorganize their country and make their trains run on time. In keeping with that, in July 2005 a transition coordinator was appointed, à la Paul Bremer in Iraq! In the latter case, at least we waited until we had occupied the country.
But with or without a transition coordinator, the plan didn't work--and it is difficult to understand why the Bush team thought it would. Increased radio and TV broadcasting, to the extent that it proved feasible, had virtually no impact on Cuban public opinion. Despite US restrictions on the travel of Americans, revenues from tourism actually increased. And as for aid to the dissidents, that had no effect either. Many dissidents even openly expressed their disagreement with the new US initiative. One, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, summed up their reaction: "We're not in agreement with any foreign government giving opinions as to what we Cubans must do."
Rather than collapsing, as the commission had predicted, the Cuban economy turned a corner and is showing strong signs of recovery, with a growth rate of at least 8 percent for 2005. Cuba has new and vitally important economic relationships with Venezuela and China. The price of nickel, now Cuba's major export, has reached record highs. And there are strong signs of a major new oilfield off the north coast; various countries are already bidding for drilling sites.
Ignoring this reality--pretending that the plan is working and, indeed, that we've reached a "new stage" in the transformation of Cuba--on July 10, with much fanfare, the Bush Administration issued a new "Compact With the Cuban People." This dredged up a few new measures against the Cuban economy--likely to be as ineffectual as earlier ones--but its basic purpose seemed to be to put forward a revised objective. The old goal had been to bring down the Castro government. The new one would be to prevent the so-called "succession strategy," i.e., that Castro be succeeded by his brother, Raúl, the First Vice President.
What timing! No sooner had the Bush Administration said it was unacceptable than it happened. On July 31 Fidel announced that because of a delicate intestinal operation requiring an indefinite period of recuperation, he was signing power over to his brother, who would now be acting President. Subsequently, there were reports that Fidel would probably be able to resume his duties within a few weeks, but of course that remains to be seen.
People in Cuba took the succession calmly. If Fidel were for some reason incapacitated, they would expect Raúl to take over. Though lacking his brother's charisma, he is known as an excellent administrator. The Cuban military, which he leads, is one of the most efficient and respected institutions in the country.
But if the Cuban people seem willing to accept the interim rule of Raúl Castro, the Bush Administration is not. That's unfortunate, since there is reason to believe that Raúl is open to some degree of accommodation with Washington. The possibility was at least worth exploring, but the State Department immediately rejected the appointment, saying, "The imposition of Raúl Castro denies the Cuban people their right to freely elect their government." It then offered to assist their efforts toward a transition more to its liking. President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also called on the Cuban people "to work for democratic change on the island" and stressed that the United States stood ready to help "Cuba's transition to democracy."
Such entreaties--in effect calling on Cubans to work against the successor government--will fail. Indeed, that the Administration makes them at all suggests it is even further out of touch with reality than we might have imagined. There certainly are no legions of Cubans waiting to follow Washington's lead in this matter, especially not when US credibility is at an all-time low. Cubans need only look to the smoking ruins of Iraq for an example of US "democracy building."
In sum, what we have here is a totally bankrupt policy. The Administration will not deal with the existing government, whether led by Fidel or Raúl. It calls for a democratic transitional government but has no means of bringing one into being. Rather, it is left to issue calls in the night wind, to any Cubans who just might be listening, to create that new government. We shouldn't be surprised when no one answers.