With Castro fading fast, it's time to rethink U.S. policy toward the Cuban regime and give hope to a beleaguered people.
by Mario Loyola
Weekly Standard 10/15/2007, Volume 013, Issue 05
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez, who fled the Cuban Revolution at the age of six in 1960, is the Bush administration's point man on Cuba policy. He is often asked whether the U.S. embargo is working. "My answer is an emphatic yes," he recently explained. "The embargo has denied Castro resources." Maybe so. But it has also supplied the Castro regime with two things it vitally needs: isolation and a foreign enemy who is not a real threat.
For decades the United States has maintained a policy of complete ostracism of Cuba--no travel, no trade, no remittances, no diplomatic relations. This has not cut the Castro regime off from resources: Cuba receives as much aid from Venezuela's Hugo Chávez as Israel gets from the United States. The policy has accomplished little except to protect the Castro regime from the outside influences that proved fatal to communism in Europe. And it is increasingly poisonous to the interests of the United States.
President Bush gave a clue to why this policy survives in his 2007 State of the Union speech when he said, "We will continue to speak out for the cause of freedom in places like Cuba, Belarus, and Burma." Miami representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen gave the president a beaming thumbs-up, not stopping to think that what defines these three countries as a group is not the repressiveness of their governments (he could then have mentioned China or Saudi Arabia) but rather their strategic irrelevance.
Few Americans are old enough to remember that Cuba was once modern and vibrant, a powerhouse of cultural influence. Modernity was the reason for the revolution. Castro's initial base of support was among the urban middle class--university students, professionals, and small-business owners who wanted democracy. What they got was a cataclysm.
WASHINGTON REACTS TO CASTRO
The current U.S. policy towards Cuba was born in the elections of 1960. Castro had been in power nearly two years. Reports of kangaroo courts and summary executions carried live on television horrified the American public, while Castro's fratricidal consolidation of power--along with sweeping seizures of foreign-owned property and military support from the Soviet Union--awoke Washington to a near menace.
In October, John F. Kennedy, the Democratic nominee for president, accused the Eisenhower administration (and by implication his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon) of permitting the creation of "Communism's first Caribbean base" and allowing Castro to arm himself to the teeth with Soviet weapons. Nixon convinced Eisenhower to react sharply, and, on October 19, the president imposed an embargo on all trade with Cuba. With an indifference that would become characteristic of Washington's attitude, the secretary of commerce, Frederick Henry Mueller, remarked, "If it pushes them into trade with the Communist bloc, that's just too bad." In January, Washington broke off diplomatic relations.
In the months that followed, Castro dramatically increased the seizure of private property and criminalized the free press. When the archbishop of Santiago publicly protested, Castro turned on the church and confiscated all property held by religious organizations. For my grandfather, a pharmacist in the eastern seaside town of Manzanillo who had delivered medicines to Castro's guerrillas in the Sierra Maestra mountains, this was the final straw. Along with hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, he and his family fled to the United States. Betrayed by their former hero, these Cubans would hate Castro with an enduring passion. They would remain implacably opposed to any relaxation of the U.S. embargo.
After the Bay of Pigs invasion failed in 1961, Castro slammed the door shut on the exodus. The transformation of Cuba into a prison was now complete, with two sets of walls--one erected by Castro to keep everyone in and the other erected by Washington to keep everyone and everything out. Cuba's people began their lonely journey into the endless calamities of Castro's dictatorship.
WHAT CASTRO WROUGHT
Cuba would now be shaped by Castro's personal--and often sadistic--caprices. When the guerilla leader Huber Matos, the comandante of Camagüey province, attacked the drift towards communism in 1959, Castro sent Matos's best friend to arrest him. (Convicted of treason, Matos spent 20 years in jail.) Castro had no patience for dissent and was always willing to contradict the consensus of his advisers, just to show them that he was in charge. That same summer, a revolutionary tribunal in Santiago acquitted 57 air force officers of the former regime. Castro traveled to the province and personally reversed the verdict, arguing that technicalities could not get in the way of the "revolutionary conscience." The officers were executed en masse by machine gun.
In his 1992 memoir Before Night Falls, a horrifying and brilliant chronicle of the Cuban Revolution's first two decades, Reinaldo Arenas recalls that by 1961 basic foodstuffs had disappeared from the markets. Cubans would travel to the new collective farms "begging to buy eggs and chicken; some offered to pay any price for a chicken, but they were denied because a farm 'of the people' couldn't sell to individuals." In 1959, Cuba's per capita GDP was among the highest in Latin America. Just ten years later, Castro's ruinous policies--incompetent even by Communist standards--had made Cuba one of the poorest countries in the world.
Castro's solution was more dictatorship. As Walter Lippmann observed in The Good Society (1937), the organizing principle of a Marxist society is not Marxism but militarism. In 1965 Castro launched a plan to increase the sugar harvest to 10 million tons of sugarcane in 1970. Arenas was among the hundreds of thousands of Cubans driven into the field to work the harvest.
The farm was, in reality, an immense military unit. All those who participated in cutting the sugarcane were young recruits who had to work there obligatorily. To enter one of those places was to enter the last circle of hell. . . . I had seen trials in which young men were condemned to twenty and thirty years in prison for the mere fact that on the weekend, they had gone to visit their families, their mothers, their girlfriends.
The effort proved unsustainable. Sugar production began to decline and never stopped. Today, sunk by the fall of the Soviet Union, food production in Cuba is less than half of what it was in 1959, and the sugar harvest is less than a tenth of what it was then. The economy no longer produces much of anything. Forced labor has been replaced by involuntary indolence. And escape is all but impossible.
Many Cubans are currently serving long prison sentences--generally between 20 and 30 years, often without beds or medical attention--convicted of nothing more than attempting "to exit the national territory illegally." Many were also charged with piracy: By law there is no such thing as a private boat in Cuba, so trying to get across the Florida Straits--even if it's in your own fishing boat--is by the government's definition an act of piracy. And if someone should try to escape punishment by claiming to have been an unwilling passenger on your boat, you would be charged with terrorism, a capital offense.
In April 2003, dissidents seized a local ferry and headed north towards the coast of Florida. They ran out of fuel on the high seas, and Cuban forces brought the ferry back. The dissidents were tried for "terrorism, piracy, and attempt to illegally exit the national territory" in a proceeding that lasted just a few hours. They were executed within days. These horrors are the stuff of daily life in Cuba. As Arenas noted, in a totalitarian society, "Calamities are endless."
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government moved to liberalize its Cuba policy. The Clinton administration relaxed some aspects of the embargo and made it easier to travel there. Republicans in Congress fought these moves tooth-and-nail, drafting the Helms-Burton Act to codify the policy of ostracism. Clinton refused to sign it. But, when a pair of American Cessnas were shot down by the Cuban air force in 1996, he reversed course.
Helms-Burton forbids any dealings with Cuba until the regime meets a lengthy wish list of conditions and until both Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl are out of power. The regime has to commit suicide or be overthrown before the United States will deign to have any contact with it. It is the negotiating posture of somebody who has no interest in negotiating.
If the administration were really aiming to end communism in Cuba, it would look to the policies that worked against communism elsewhere. During the Cold War, we had diplomatic relations with every country in the Warsaw Pact. We started extending large loans to the Soviet Union in the 1970s and made trade a cornerstone of China policy from the moment of Nixon's opening. One problem facing the Polish Communist regime in the 1980s was the fact that they owed the West $40 billion and were in desperate need of debt relief.
Worse still, just as American officials knew in 1960 that the embargo would push Cuba further into the Soviet bloc, they are well aware that the present policy is pushing Cuba into the arms of Venezuela and Iran--more unwillingly.
In the exile community, opposition to Castro was for decades absolute and nonnegotiable. Exiles urging dialogue were silenced through intimidation and terrorism. In Miami, bombings and other violent acts against foreign consulates, travel agencies, and radio stations were dishearteningly routine.
For the Cubans who left during the revolution, the island had simply ceased to exist. Growing up, I knew Cuba only in stories and old pictures. But that has changed. For those Cubans who have arrived in the United States in the last quarter-century, who actually had to live under the Castro regime, Cuba remains very much present, and such exiles are now in the majority in America. The 1980 Mariel boatlift brought 140,000 Cubans to Miami, and another 300,000 have followed under a visa program negotiated by the Clinton administration to try to alleviate the refugee crisis.
These exiles know that the problems of Cuba go far beyond Castro. Laritza Diversent, a dissident writing from Havana, recently lamented the "prostitution, delinquency, and corruption that have become indispensable means of subsistence." For the new exiles, Cuba's nightmarish privations weigh more than politics; less than half of them support the embargo. Even among exiles who arrived in the early years of the revolution, there is growing frustration with a policy that has never produced any tangible benefit. Carlos Saladrigas, who escaped Cuba in 1961 and is one of the exile community's most successful businessmen, formed the Cuba Study Group in 2000 to examine policy alternatives.
Saladrigas focuses on the fact that dictatorships need legitimacy. "The Communist regime in Cuba," he explains, "has been able to get legitimacy from two sources: the conflict with the United States and the charisma of Fidel." The United States can eliminate the first one whenever it wants, and the second will soon eliminate itself. Saladrigas notes that Raúl Castro is in a much weaker position than his brother and will have to base his legitimacy on actual results. That will force him towards reform. And, as Lech Walesa likes to point out, the Communist system is unreformable.
ROOTS OF HOPE
Fidel Castro, the immovable ideological core of the Cuban Revolution, is gone from power and will never come back--in a recent interview released by Cuban state television, Castro showed difficulty completing simple sentences. His brother is far less ideological and never contradicts the consensus of his advisers. Meanwhile, behind the aging oligarchs of the Sierra Maestra generation, there is an entire state full of bureaucrats who know that they will live to see the fall of communism in Cuba and have to think about what happens next. Among them are future allies of the United States.
In an echo of perestroika and glasnost, two words have crept into official propaganda in the last year: "change" and "dialogue." The word "change" has become common on T-shirts and in windows across Cuba, and the regime has reportedly launched a wide-ranging and historic "internal dialogue" on all issues. For the regime to admit that people want change and the freedom to talk about it, necessarily empowers public opinion as a force in opposition to party ideology. This is the process that destroyed the Communist political monopoly in Eastern Europe and in no case did it follow the rigid prescriptions of Helms-Burton.
The all-or-nothing approach of U.S. policy is increasing the risk that the transition, when it comes, will be violent. That terrifies Cuba's dissidents--and poses grave risks for the United States. Instability could further radicalize the regime and open more opportunities for Venezuela and Iran. It could lead to another refugee crisis. Most ominously, Cuba could become a failing state, overrun by armed gangs with ties to drug trafficking and international terrorism, as in much of Central America.
The U.S. government should be negotiating for incremental transition, because even the smallest reforms will fuel popular expectations for more change. In 1992, Carlos Lage, then finance minister and now vice president, spent many months in Europe putting together a package of reforms aimed at encouraging small business. Castro balked on ideological grounds (he could not live with the thought that someone in Cuba might make a profit), but now that he is effectively out of power, Lage is likely to want to try again. The United States can help him: allowing Cuba access to microfinancing (even if that also gives the regime access to more resources) and letting American firms import products manufactured by privately owned businesses there.
The United States should encourage the Cuban regime to talk to dissident leaders such as Osvaldo Payá--but we should listen to them, too. Every major dissident group in Cuba has called for the United States to lift the restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban exiles. That alone could reduce the terrible isolation in which Cuba's dissidents are now struggling.
Making the exile community a bridge to Cuba would also allow U.S. policy to profit from the work that Carlos Saladrigas and others have done to build consensus for change among Cubans and to prepare for the end of communism--and of exile. With its "Pillars" declaration, Cuban Consensus--an umbrella organization of dissident and exile groups including the once hardline Cuban American National Foundation--has created a framework of reconciliation for the post-Castro era. Student groups in the United States, such as Roots of Hope, are already nourishing contacts with Cuba's largely dissident youth.
Castro so thoroughly ruined Cuba as to make it irrelevant. That irrelevance--and the tragic inertia it has injected into U.S. policy--now protect the regime he is leaving behind. Meanwhile, Cubans continue to suffer silently, knowing that sooner or later something has to change.
Mario Loyola is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
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[The significance of this article is that the most influential neo-conservative magazine has published an article by a Fellow from a leading neo-conservative think tank who expresses a very negative political perspective from the Cuban American community. Yet the author makes a strong argument from within that context for a change in US policy, and in particular an end to restrictions on family travel. --John McAuliff]