Wednesday, October 31, 2007

On Cuba, the U.S. is an island

The Los Angeles Times

The president's hard-line anti-Castro policy is costing him international support.

By Paolo Spadoni

October 31, 2007

In an emotional speech last week before government officials, prominent Cuban exiles and families of jailed Cuban dissidents, President Bush unveiled new U.S. initiatives aimed at hastening a democratic transition in Cuba. He also ruled out any detente with the communist nation even if interim President Raul Castro were to permanently succeed his brother, Fidel, and enact substantial economic reforms.

Stressing that an eventual transfer of power from Fidel to Raul would simply amount to "exchanging one dictator for another," Bush announced the creation of a multibillion-dollar international "freedom fund" that would help pay for infrastructure improvements and other programs in Cuba after the island's citizens rid themselves of their "tropical gulag." Furthermore, Bush declared that the United States is willing to offer scholarships to students in Cuba and to license religious groups and nongovernmental organizations to provide computers and Internet access to the Cuban people, "but only if the Cuban regime, the ruling class, gets out of the way."

Leaving aside Bush's archaic rhetoric and his dangerous message for the Cuban people to "rise up to demand their liberty," one cannot avoid wondering how he can realistically seek financial contributions from other countries to support U.S. pro-democracy efforts in Cuba. These are the same countries that have repeatedly condemned Washington's hostile policy toward Havana and told the U.S. to change its unilateral approach.

Indeed, coming from a leader who has neglected the will of the international community for years, Bush's calls for a Cuba democracy fund will likely fall on deaf ears.

The U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday held its annual vote on U.S. economic sanctions with respect to Cuba, and it overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling for an end to the 45-year-old embargo and objecting to U.S. laws and regulations compelling other countries to adhere to it.

Before Congress' passage of the Cuban Democracy Act in 1992, Cuba had not been able to obtain a General Assembly resolution against the U.S. embargo. That law, among other things, prevents cargo vessels from third countries from docking in U.S. ports if they visited Cuba in the previous six months. In November 1992, because of international concern regarding the extraterritorial character of the U.S. legislation, the United Nations condemned the embargo by a vote of 59 to 3 (with 71 countries abstaining). Since then, the vote has become more lopsided. In 1998, 157 governments expressed disapproval of U.S. sanctions (with 12 abstentions).

Bush's tougher stance on Havana and his pressure on other countries to curtail their business relationships with the Castro regime have just galvanized the international community even more and isolated the U.S. further. The number of countries opposing the embargo in the U.N. peaked at 184 this year, with only Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau siding with the United States.

It is worth mentioning that several European and Latin American governments have voted in favor of U.N. resolutions criticizing the human rights situation in Cuba. The reality is that many countries share U.S. hopes for democratic changes on the island, but they disagree with Washington over the best course of action to stimulate those changes.

Even close U.S. allies (and perhaps likely contributors to the proposed freedom fund) such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic -- touted by Bush as "vital sources of support and encouragement to Cuba's brave democratic opposition" -- rejected U.S. sanctions in the United Nations.

In short, if the White House is serious in its attempt to reach out to other countries on Cuba, it needs to devise a foreign policy that is more in line with the position of the rest of the world and less driven by domestic political considerations.

When a billboard war between Cuba and the U.S. broke out in early 2006 in Havana, one of the messages displayed on a huge electronic sign at the U.S. Interest Section was a famous quote by former Polish President Lech Walesa: "Only in totalitarian societies do governments talk and talk at their people and never listen."

As the self-proclaimed leader of the free world, Bush should stop pandering to a shrinking group of Cuban American hard-liners and start listening to that world he claims to represent.

Paolo Spadoni is a visiting assistant professor in the department of political science at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.

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