Monday, November 12, 2007

November Perspective on US-Cuba Relations

November 2007:
The President Plays Mind Games, Congress Immobilized, Americans Change the Rules

by John McAuliff

The President's speech on Cuba policy at the State Department on October 24th has been greeted with widespread criticism and editorial derision. Before it was delivered, there were rumors that he would either crack down on thinly veiled violations of travel restrictions by thousands of Cuban Americans or restore family travel to the pre-2004 mode. He did neither.

In fact, it was not immediately clear what his purpose was. Much of what he said simply recycled irrelevant and presumptuous Cuba transition documents. His concrete proposals for donated computers, scholarships and an international fund were saccharine coating for regime change tactics and can not have been intended to be taken seriously, even as propaganda. His appeal for international support was answered within days when the UN for the 16th year adopted a resolution opposing the unilateral US embargo--by a record vote of 184 to 4.

Mr. Bush’s only substantive points were provocative, that the US was now less interested in stability and that the Cuban military and security forces should be disloyal.

Does he now buy into Miami fantasies about post-Fidel rebellion and contemplate a third or fourth front for US military intervention? Or does he put pandering to the hard right above saving the Republican vote in south Florida? (The Administration’s harsh cut-back of family travel is very unpopular as indicated by public opinion polls and the tendency of new Cuban American voters to register independent or Democrat.)

Two people who have a personal stake in what the President said interpreted it this way:

A prominent Cuban-American academic in Miami whose work is well funded by USAID:

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, said Bush's choice of the State Department as the speech venue sent a signal to those in the foreign service who may want to soften Cuba policy...''Certain elements of the bureaucracy may not be following the president's policies on Cuba,'' said Suchlicki, ...``They are concerned about mass migration. They want stability in Cuba and are not pushing the envelope for change.'' Bush settled the issue when he said: 'The operative word in our future dealings with Cuba is not `stability.' The operative word is 'freedom.' ''

--from "Bush echoed Miamians' words in Cuba speech" by Alfonso Chardy, The Miami Herald - Posted October 26

A prominent Cuban dissident in Havana:

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, economist and former prisoner:
"Instead of encouraging the changes that at this moment are debated within the government, changes that are possible though not certain, [Washington] reinforces the sectors that don't want any reform." In his opinion, Bush should have authorized travel to Cuba by the exiles, instead of maintaining and tightening the embargo because of the upcoming elections. "It seems there is a Holy Alliance between those who -- in Cuba and the U.S. -- don't want anything to change."

-- from El Pais Newspaper of Spain, "Bush hallucinates," by Mauricio Vicent, Oct. 26, as cited on line by Progresso Weekly

Suchliki is deluded by his own wishful thinking and Chepe is closer to the mark.

Presumably some people in the rearguard Miami elite and the US government recognize the potential of Raul Castro enabling significant Vietnam-style reform, producing rapid agricultural and economic progress. This could be coupled with deeper ties to the dominant trend in Latin America, a broad-based market-friendly left.

While most Americans might see such evolutionary changes in Cuba as a good thing and in our national interest, significant economic reforms and closer ties in the Hemisphere will be the death knell for the dreams of the ultras in Miami and their ideological allies in Washington.

I believe that the real goal of the President's speech was to provoke the more orthodox and cautious sector of leaders in Cuba to oppose the surprisingly open and wide-ranging debate that Raul Castro has launched, and to push them to block any serious reform initiatives in agriculture, small business and the media. The orthodox will be motivated to argue that the aggressive tone of Bush's speech must be taken seriously. They will fear that US promotion of instability is more likely to find vulnerabilities in national unity during a process of public criticism and socio-economic experiment. At the least, they will say, let’s play it safe and wait until Bush is gone and we see the attitude of his successor.

No doubt other leaders will argue that ignoring real problems actually makes Cuba more susceptible to outside interference, and that viewpoint will probably win.

However, we have seen in the past that Cuban reactions to pressure can be as counter-productive as conventional wisdom is in the US. Cases in point: the shoot down of the deliberately provocative Brothers to the Rescue flights; the crackdown on dissidents because of the intentionally provocative role with them of Jim Caison, head of the US Interests Section. The former had a dramatic impact on the Clinton Administration and Congress, leading to passage of the Helms-Burton law. The latter substantially diminished Congressional support for moderation of the embargo.

Congress and the American People

A few members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidates gave appropriately critical responses to President Bush’s speech. However, to my knowledge, the House and Senate leadership were silent.

Moreover, there is no indication that the Democrats are prepared to take advantage of the weakness of the Administration on this issue. They are leaving in the State Department appropriations bill $47 million of “democracy funding” which in part assists Miami Republicans in the 2008 election and in part subsidizes conservative propaganda aimed at Americans.

Congressional leaders are not challenging the President to veto a bill that reflects the desire of nearly two-thirds of Americans for normal relations. They have done nothing to bring to the floor legislation to regain the Constitutional right of travel for the 40 % who want to visit Cuba—even though it has 120 cosponsors in the House and 23 in the Senate. Despite the special benefit of track 2 style dialog during a period of far-reaching domestic debate, Democrats are not restoring travel that was possible during the Clinton Administration for non-tourist purposes such as academic, humanitarian, religious, cultural, professional and people to people exchanges. Congress has even turned its back on the least controversial humanitarian cause of Cuban American family reunion.

One consequence of the President’s extremism and Congressional inaction is that constituent anger over draconian restrictions on family travel is putting at risk the reelection of one of more of Miami’s Cuban American Republican Representatives. Should the Democrats win, it will echo in Washington.

In the meantime, Americans are increasingly voting with their feet and the Bush Administration can do little about this spontaneous grass roots resistance. While mainstream religious institutions have lost their licenses, thousands of Cuban Americans have gone on fraudulent or dubious religious trips, or simply traveled unimpeded through third countries. The US Attorney’s office in Miami successfully won guilty pleas last month from the creators of blatantly phony churches, but neither it nor the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) seem disposed to act against the 4,500 Cuban Americans who paid to use those licenses.

In addition, an estimated 40,000 other Americans will travel to Cuba this year, most without the approval of OFAC. They have found it is easy to book tickets and receive a tourist visa to Cuba from travel agents in a dozen countries with direct flight connections, and know that the Cubans do not stamp US passports. If suspected by US immigration authorities, unlicensed travelers may receive a letter from OFAC threatening a fine for violation of regulations. However, if they appeal for a hearing, nothing else happens because the administrative judge process has ground to a halt with an unmanageable backlog of individual and group cases.

As information spreads by word of mouth and through the internet that travel restrictions cannot be enforced and how simple it is to go, more Americans will no longer wait to see Cuba. Some will do this as an act of principled non-cooperation, the exercise of one more fundamental Constitutional right that has been compromised by a discredited lame-duck Administration, this time for purely partisan political reasons. Others will simply want to beat the rush of a million American tourists predicted for the first year after the next President officially ends travel restrictions.

If the Democrats win the 2008 Presidential election, the failure of the current Congress to act on travel will leave the new Administration with the immediate choice of either harassing tens of thousands of its supporters, or quickly moving to clean up one more mess left by the Bush Administration.