Georgie Anne Geyer
Tue Oct 30, 6:09 PM ET
WASHINGTON -- Turn directly to the south and cup your ear toward Cuba. You might just hear some mysteriously evocative new messages flying back and forth between Havana and Washington.
In fact, there has not been a better chance for forging a truly workable, if not creative, relationship between the two quarrelsome nations since 1959, when Fidel Castro came to power and everything shut down. But is anybody here listening? One fears, particularly after President Bush's hostile speech last week, that instead of rewriting history at this unique turning point, we are in danger of repeating it.
A discerning observer might think, at a classic moment of change like this in Cuba, that wise American leaders might tread carefully, speak softly and hide their sticks behind new intentions. One might dream that we could be on the watch for wise diplomatic openings to use to our advantage after 48 years of alternating deadly silence with explosive violence in the straits.
Look first at the lineup on one side: An extremely ill Fidel voluntarily "retires" in the summer of 2006 before his 80th birthday, naming "little brother" Raul, no kid himself at 76, to power. A collective leadership, including top leaders of the Communist Party and younger, more worldly generals, many of whom have traveled and grasped the realities outside Cuba, is established.
In only this first year, Raul is daring: He not only allows, but encourages, a genuine debate over Cuba's 90 percent state-owned economy. He even talks of opening negotiations with the United States -- and "in a civilized fashion"!
Small but real examples of the changes: Under Raul, the state has raised $25 million in payments to milk and meat producers, is filling the empty streets with new Chinese buses, and is even talking about opening the economy to foreign investment.
In a brilliant piece in the summer issue of The Washington Quarterly, former CIA top Cuba analyst Brian Latell, author of the informative "After Fidel," pointed out that "the first months of Raul's provisional government augured well for continuity and stability," in part because "any serious instability would delegitimize the successor regime in its infancy."
Most important, Latell also argued convincingly, "in a departure from Fidel's standard rhetoric ... the new regime is admitting that the country's economic problems are SYSTEMIC, the results of corruption, inefficiency and overly rigid central planning. Internal scapegoats and the U.S. economic embargo are no longer incessantly being blamed. ... Previously persecuted groups ... are beginning to see in Raul the makings of a Communist reformer" and "a man of methodical creativity."
But then, Raul has always been different. Unlike his messianic and Machiavellian older brother, Raul is highly organized, an expert at military management and a man whose mind is more open to the world than his brother's.
And in a country where the numbers of youth are gaining, researchers have found a direct correlation between the young and support for democratic and economic changes. In fact, in an amazing recent survey conducted by the congressionally mandated International Republican Institute (IRI) in Cuba by Central American pollsters, nearly three-quarters of the 584 Cubans surveyed said they would like "to vote to decide who succeeds Fidel Castro as president." Indeed, a stunning 83 percent of Cubans believe that transformations toward a market-based economy would "improve their lives."
Meanwhile, one hears that the irreplaceable but still hidden Fidel is writing "editorials" about the world. One would think that he might leave us poor ink-stained wretches to our own business, but, no!
What would seem obvious to any thoughtful observer or analyst is that, given this new situation and handed these new possibilities, the United States, with its complicated history of intervention in Cuba, should effectively do nothing. Let these changes work themselves out. Make it appear that the United States is willing to gradually build a new and mature relationship with the Cuban people. In short, stop interfering!
Instead, President Bush's recent speech on Cuba exceeded even his speeches toward Iraq in terms of ire and insults. Washington would help the "new Cuba," the president said, with Internet access, with computers, with scholarships -- but only if Cuba met American conditions like total freedom of speech, action and political processes.
The civilian brigades of Cuban doctors who are serving around the world? Bush urged them to desert those contingents. The Cuban military, which has been proud of its service to Cuba? Bush disdainfully and high-handedly told them: "There is a place for you in a free Cuba."
Seldom has one heard a speech so insulting to another people -- and, therefore, so incapable of reaching the desired conclusion.
So here we are again -- still without the faintest idea of how to deal with a tiny but obstreperous island that has caused us an inordinate amount of trouble over the entire 20th century. One does not have to be pro-Fidel or anti-American to see that this is hardly the way to wean the old Castroite Cuba away from the dictatorships of the past.