U.S. creates five groups to eye Cuba
The Bush administration mobilized five new government groups to track events in Cuba after leader Fidel Castro's ceding of power on July 31.
BY PABLO BACHELET
WASHINGTON - Convinced that Fidel Castro will never regain the power he once wielded, the Bush administration has created five interagency working groups to monitor Cuba and carry out U.S. policies.
The groups, some of which operate in a war-room-like setting, were quietly set up after the July 31 announcement that the ailing Cuban leader had temporarily ceded power to a collective leadership headed by his brother Raúl, U.S. officials have told The Miami Herald.
Their composition reflects both the administration's Cuban policy priorities as well as the belief that the 80-year-old Castro's status as the island's undisputed leader is finished, regardless of the nature of his still-mysterious ailment.
Thomas Shannon, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, said last month that Castro ''does not appear'' to be in a position to return to day-to-day management.
Eric Watnik, a State Department spokesman on Cuban issues, went further, telling The Miami Herald that Castro ''will never come back to the position that he previously enjoyed.'' He declined to detail any evidence the U.S. government has for such a belief.
U.S. officials say three of the newly created groups are headed by the State Department: diplomatic actions; strategic communications and democratic promotion. Another that coordinated humanitarian aid to Cuba is run by the Commerce Department, and a fifth, on migration issues, is run jointly by the National Security Council and the Department of Homeland Security.
Many members of the groups work out of the same State Department office in what one person familiar with the operation described as a ``control room.''
The State Department is reluctant to give details of the new interagency groups, saying the focus should be on the democratic transition the groups are trying to achieve in Cuba rather than on the U.S. government process.
But the overall idea is to exchange views with other governments and create a common external front as Cuba begins its post-Castro transition, said U.S. officials who asked for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issues.
Officials portrayed the working groups as logical outcomes of the Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba, an interagency Cabinet-level effort that has been convened twice to draft policy recommendations. The second commission report, co-chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, was issued in July, just weeks before Castro underwent surgery for intestinal bleeding caused by a still undisclosed ailment.
It recommended more aid to Castro opponents, a diplomatic campaign to offset Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez's alleged efforts to prolong communism in Cuba, and stricter enforcement of existing sanctions. It also recommended more coordination between government agencies.
The establishment of the new interagency working groups came around the same time as the intelligence community was also bolstering its monitoring of Cuba. Last month, U.S. Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte appointed CIA veteran Patrick Maher as acting mission manager for Cuba and Venezuela. Officials say the post had been planned before the announcement of Castro's illness.
The position is considered ''very high level,'' according to Brian Latell, a retired CIA analyst on Cuba and author of a recent book on Fidel and Raúl Castro, After Fidel.
Such mission managers usually oversee a staff of between four and six people that culls intelligence information on the target countries. Though the post is essentially one of coordination, the manager is also expected to ''be an activist'' to stimulate better information gathering from the different branches of the intelligence services, Latell said.
The creation of the post also underlined the national security importance of Cuba and Venezuela. Only Iran and North Korea -- both perceived as nuclear threats -- currently have similar U.S. mission managers overseeing them. Three other managers oversee counterterrorism, counterintelligence and counterproliferation.
The Bush administration's policy on Cuba has been straightforward: pressure Havana to adopt democratic reforms through a combination of economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
But when specific options are discussed, Cuba has often turned out to be divisive.
The Department of Defense, for instance, has balked at acting too aggressively for fear of igniting a crisis in the U.S. back yard at a time when U.S. forces already are stretched thin by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mauricio Claver-Carone, who heads the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee in Washington, which lobbies Congress for tougher sanctions on the island, says democratic change in Cuba should ''supersede perceived instability'' concerns.
He said that the State Department and the White House are committed to ''democracy above all options,'' while Homeland Security and the Pentagon are ``ambivalent to drastic change in Cuba.''
Another example is an effort to ease the restriction requiring the U.S. airplanes that broadcast Radio and TV Martí to Cuba to remain within U.S. territorial airspace -- a measure that limits its ability to get around Cuban jamming.
Some Cuban-American activists have long advocated allowing the aircraft to wander into international airspace despite concerns about violating international broadcasting regulations. But the Cuban government considers all Martí broadcasts provocations that violate international law.
Miami Republican Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart told The Miami Herald in an interview earlier this year that the aircraft ``should be able to fly from wherever it has to fly so that the signal can't be jammed.''