News Observor, Raleigh, NC
Point of View: Published: Oct 31, 2007
Reshaping Cuba from Washington
Louis A. Perez Jr.
CHAPEL HILL - President Bush's reaffirmation of his position on Cuba last week serves to remind us of the continuing short-sightedness of U.S. policy. It defies logic.
With Vietnam and Libya, the United States establishes diplomatic relations and expands trade and aid agreements as a policy of constructive engagement to promote democracy; with Cuba the United States maintains political pressure and increases economic sanctions as a policy of punitive isolation in the name of promoting democracy.
And it is precisely that isolation -- of the United States -- that bodes ill, for the government denies itself access to Cuba at a time of change on the island.
The long-awaited transition in Cuba has begun. But political change in Havana has elicited no policy change from Washington. The president's speech last week indicates that he intends to "stay the course" in regard to Cuba. The embargo has assumed a life of its own: Its very longevity serves as the principal rationale for its continuance.
To paraphrase the Otis Redding lyric, the United States has been embargoing Cuba for too long to stop now.
But the president's comments bode ill for other reasons. The administration that will not speak to the Cuban government now presumes to speak to and on behalf of the best interests of "the Cuban people." In the weeks following Fidel Castro's illness in 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice assured Cubans directly that "all of you must know that you have no greater friend than the United States of America." Bush last week also reassured Cubans that "the American people care about you."
These warm well-wishes are received with blank incredulity in Cuba, for they come from an administration that has single-mindedly adopted measures designed to worsen the conditions of daily life for the very people for whom it professes to "care about."
The United States insists that the embargo is not directed against the Cuban people, but rather against their government. In fact, the people have borne the full brunt of punitive sanctions.
The embargo, after all, was conceived with the intent to politicize hunger as a means to foment popular disaffection, in the hope that Cubans, driven by want and motivated by despair, would rise up against their government.
"The only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship," a State Department memo insisted as early as 1960, and advocated measures "to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government."
The United States appears to have adopted the stance that it is OK to punish the Cuban people for their own good. Not a good way to win friends and influence people in Cuba.
Bush's speech, further, implies a far more insidious intent. The president appears to be inciting Cubans to rebellion.
"You have the power to shape your own destiny," he exhorted. How this would be achieved was not made clear, except that the president also addressed the Cuban armed forces, and suggested portentously: "When Cubans rise up to demand their liberty ... you've got to make a choice." And the choice? To "defend a disgraced and dying order by using force against your own people" or "embrace your people's desire for change."
The phrase "using force against your own people" provides insight into the meaning of the president's intent. Is this what the Cuba policy of the United States has come down to: inciting Cubans to rebellion and warning the armed forces against suppressing rebellion?
The administration's policy belies its claim to desire agency for the Cuban people. It plans unilaterally for the future of a "post-Castro" Cuba, apparently untroubled by the total exclusion of the people who live there. When it comes to the matter of the future of Cuba, the participation of the Cubans who live in Cuba is deemed unnecessary: hardly reassuring to Cubans who are exhorted to shape their own destiny.
Without the political will to engage a Cuban government in transition, it is not certain that the Bush administration possesses the moral credibility to engage the Cuban people. It would perhaps best serve the interests of both countries for the United States to show respect for the Cuban people by acting on the premise that Cubans in Cuba know what is in their best interest.
(Louis A. Perez Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson professor of history and director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Cuba in the American Imagination.")