Monday, June 23, 2008

U.S.-Cuban Relations: A New Beginning?

Center for International Policy

June 20, 2008

By Wayne S. Smith

My last conversation with Raul Castro came some 26 years ago, as I was bowing out as Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. But U.S.-Cuban relations are so frozen in time that he might have uttered the words yesterday.

"Why," Raul asked, "is it so difficult to begin a dialogue with your government? There are major issues that may require lengthy negotiations. There are others, however, that could be solved quickly. And in the process of addressing them, we could improve the atmosphere. But we must begin to talk. That is the key thing: to talk."

Unfortunately, there were no takers. The Reagan Administration wasn't interested in dialogue. Nor, all these years later, is the Bush Administration. Raul has several times, since taking over the presidency some two years ago, again suggested a dialogue without preconditions. Again, no response. Of course not, for the Bush Administration's stated objective is to bring down the Castro regime. As then-Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega put it in October of 2003: "The president is determined to see the end of the Castro regime and the dismantling of the apparatus that has kept him in office so long."

In other words, they want a final solution, and thus there is no place for dialogue or negotiations. But what has this "all-or-nothing" approach achieved? Absolutely nothing. It has not brought down the Cuban government nor forced any concessions from it. Nor has it undermined their economy. On the contrary, they have a growth rate of about 8%. And rather than advancing human rights, in 2003 the hard-line Bush approach led to the arrest of more political prisoners. And so long as the announced U.S. objective is to bring down the Cuban government, there will be no general release, no matter how many times the U.S. demands it.

The Bush Administration makes much of its empathy for Cuban dissidents, but in fact it ignores their request that it ease restrictions on family travel and remittances, a request voiced even by Marta Beatriz Roque, as well as Vladimiro Roca, Elizardo Sanchez, Oscar Espinosa Chepe and others. The new measures the Bush Administration imposed in 2004 limiting Cuban-Americans to one visit every three years, with no provision for emergency travel, are indeed cruel and pointless. But they will doubtless remain in place no matter how strongly the great majority of Cuban-Americans - and the dissidents - urge their removal.

And Bush will continue to reject dialogue. So does McCain, who seems to see a willingness to talk as a sign of weakness. For all practical purposes, he seems intent on continuing the sterile policies of the last eight years.

For his part, Obama indicates a willingness to talk and to remove the restrictions on family travel and remittances. He has been congratulated not only by many Cuban-Americans, but also by Oscar Espinosa Chepe and other dissidents for doing so. This could be the beginning of something new!

We should not delude ourselves. Normalizing relations with Cuba will be a difficult task, made even more so by certain provisions of the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. Indeed, the latter will probably have to be annulled before the embargo can be fully removed.

Much can be done at the start, nonetheless, to create a new atmosphere. The new administration should immediately lift travel controls and simplify the process by which Cuba pays for U.S. agricultural sales. The latter might then be doubled or even tripled.

The key, however, is to make it clear - either simply by our actions, or perhaps as stated in a meeting of senior leaders - that it will no longer be our objective to "bring down" the Cuban government. And we should now discuss disagreements through normal diplomatic channels, as we do with other countries.

The U.S. of course wants to see Cuba release political prisoners and to move toward a more open society. But we will not accomplish that through threats and refusal to talk. And putting those goals forward as preconditions for engagement with the U.S. is the best way to delay their achievement - and engagement. We should see them as goals, not preconditions.

Wayne S. Smith served in the U.S. Embassy in Havana from 1958 until the rupture of relations in 1961. He was then Chief of the U.S. Interests Section from 1979 until 1982 and is now an Adjunct Professor of Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the director of the university's Cuba Exchange Program.


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