Monday, February 25, 2008

Dialog with the left about supporting reform in Cuba

My letter to the New York Times has discomforted some on the left who are uncomfortable with the concept that US policy should be shaped to support reform. Following is my response.

Fundamentally the need for Cuba and other similar nations is to get big countries to respect the sovereignty and right to be different of smaller neighbors. While that feels like an issue of imperialism from the inside of the imperium, communist Vietnam has the same problem with communist China.

The reality is that smaller neighbors will always be influenced and shaped by bigger neighbors, for better or for worse, especially when size, wealth and power are so unequal. They need to find ways to protect their independence and identity within that reality.

Vietnam has done it by being strong, building up countervailing regional and international relationships but also by flattering China's assumption of its natural preeminence. Cuba has used the first and second means to deal with the US, but has not been very good at the last.

It is not surprising that aware people in the big bullying country sometimes overcompensate and uncritically identify with the perspective of the smaller country. Some folks go to Cuba and see nothing but problems, or overstate them. Others go and see courage and righteousness. Any problems are blamed on the US.

I have noted that official Cuban interlocutors have increasingly adopted the stance that Cuba is neither heaven nor hell. They convey both approach and avoidance to the older pattern of un-(or barely) critical solidarity.

I don't see any downside to acknowledging that there are serious problems within Cuba and not all of them can be blamed on the US--just as Raul Castro does; and that there is a serious effort underway to frankly describe and solve these problems, a.k.a. reform.

The more a country is under threat and feels vulnerable, the less likely it is to take risks which are seen as exposing itself to outside interference and to acknowledge its vulnerability. For example one reason that has been advanced by Cubans who oppose more entrepreneurial activity has been that success promotes self rather than collective interest, leads to internal differences and undermines the presumed bulwark of solidarity.

From my experience in Vietnam, I think the solidarity of impoverishment is not nearly as motivational as a sense of opportunity to succeed personally and as a family, and to escape the bureaucracy that is intrinsically intrusive when a government tries to assure equity.

Those who have power in any system always have the best of reasons to make their lives more comfortable than the average and become resented by those who do not have such power, even if the system also gives them unparalleled social benefits. This is true in Cuba today and moral lectures or policing are unlikely to reverse it.

One way to balance official/party privilege is to open ways for people to improve their lot through alternative means of private endeavors. Obviously that can get out of control too, creating its own set of conflicts as private wealth and comparative poverty accelerates. That process is well advanced in China and Vietnam faces some of the same risks.

Never-the-less, I know no Vietnamese who wants to go back to the past even though appalled by aspects of the present.

I think the extraordinary accomplishments of Cuba's revolution are more at risk if they are not able to achieve significant reform so I think it is actually an act of friendship and not of intervention to say explicitly that a different US policy will help reforms to happen.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cuba has accomplished great things but at great cost.

In response to "Fidel: father of modern Cuba" by Saul Landau

Fidel is neither savior nor devil, but an important historical figure who, like any human being, makes mistakes.

He seems to me primarily a moralist, shaped as much by his Jesuit education as by Marxism-Leninism (which itself has aspects of a Christian heresy).

From my own perspective, the combination of his idealism and personal dominance of Cuban politics for such a long period frustrated creativity and reform, in particular the adoption of market mechanisms at the grass roots that I have seen to be of tremendous benefit to peoples' well-being and hope in Vietnam.

This was not entirely his choice. The seldom swerving hostility by a superpower neighbor with two centuries of ambition to dominate Cuba's politics and economy put a premium on discipline and solidarity, which there, as in the US and other countries, too easily becomes repression of opponents.

However, from an outsider's viewpoint, regular change in leadership in any political system is vital for its health. New leaders bring new relationships, new networks of advisors, and new approaches to old problems.

Cubans, both in the country and émigrés, should and will find a balance in their judgment of the role of Fidel, and no doubt that will change over time.

Having met him only once, in December 1971, I can add little personal insight. I do recall that he and I may have been the only persons in Havana expressing positive feelings about George McGovern in the run-up to the 1972 election. Certainly the other Americans with whom I was traveling did not share our enthusiasm.

In any case, it is not the role of Americans, friends or foes, to tell Cuba how it should organize its society politically or economically. There's too much history of Americans (and Brits and French and Russians and Chinese) presuming to know what is good for other smaller nations, and of consciously or obliviously putting their own political, economic and philosophic interests first.

The best we can do is to be true to our own values, i.e. freedom of expression and travel, and remove the obstacles that distort Cuban choices, i.e. regime change subsidies and the embargo.

Freed from external threat and sanction, I don't doubt that Cubans will find their own path internally as well as reconciliation with their divided families and culture. 2/21/08

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Castro’s Retirement Offers Opportunity for Change -- in US Policy

Blinded by ideology and hobbled by Miami’s special interest politics and donations, the Bush Administration will remain irrelevant to the transition in Cuba dramatized by Fidel Castro’s retirement. It will also miss an opportunity to begin to rebuild America’s reputation in the world.

The real question is whether the Democratic Congress or candidates for President can do any better.

Serious change is underway in Cuba. International journalists have reported a country frankly examining its economic and social problems. The voices of Cubans themselves have been heard in meetings around the country, and in articles and interviews published on the internet. We received an unmediated view of the process from Cuba’s unprecedented release on-line of a two hour meeting where university students challenged Ricardo Alarcon, head of the National Assembly.

President Bush’s advocacy of regime change, instability and disloyalty by the Cuban military and police last October was either one more instance of pandering to the dreams of exiles in Miami or intended to undermine the process of internal reform by heightening Cuban anxieties about US intentions.

Since taking control of Congress, Democratic leaders have offered no challenge to the Administration, despite previous support for ending travel restrictions.

Of the leading Presidential candidates, McCain and Huckabee strive to sound harder line than Bush. Clinton only differs with him on the question of emergency visits by Cuban Americans. Obama offers the beginning of change, supporting unrestricted Cuban American family travel and remittances. Unlike the others, he is prepared to negotiate with Raul Castro without preconditions.

A minimal US response to Fidel Castro’s retirement is reinstatement of the pre 2004 travel regulations of Bill Clinton and George Bush which permitted annual and emergency visits by Cuban Americans. More importantly, it allowed non-tourist purposeful travel by world affairs councils, professional organizations, museums, religious and humanitarian groups, short term study programs, etc.

A more serious step would be to end all travel restrictions so any American could personally evaluate and interact with the transition taking place in Cuba. Only by honoring our own values of freedom, can we actually know what is taking place and provide a supportive atmosphere for Cuban reformers.

An additional benefit will be to our international reputation. Traditional allies in this hemisphere and western Europe see US policy toward Cuba as counterproductive if not obsessed and anachronistic. World opinion was signaled for the sixteenth year when the UN General Assembly condemned our unilateral embargo of Cuba by 184 to 4.

The American people know what needs to happen. Polls show that two-thirds want an end to travel restrictions and normalization of relations. It’s time for our leaders to catch up.

[The author traveled to Cuba in 1971 and annually during the past decade. He founded and heads the Fund for Reconciliation and Development which was actively involved in the normalization of US relations with Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.]

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Cuban Student Questions Provoke Diverse Reactions

Following are links to two sections of a video of an internet interview with students who had questioned Ricardo Alarcon.

While it is hard to draw conclusions based on the BBC's five minute excerpt of the original meeting, it is not difficult from personal experience to credit the authenticity of both encounters. There was obviously a need for Cuba to exercise damage control because of the way the meeting was being interpreted in the world press but the students' comments do not seem forced.

The sequence illustrates the complexity of having frank and open debate in a society which is under unceasing external attack. The defensive tendency in the past was for Cuba to show a face of unanimity and solidarity to the outside world, but the concluding quote from Juventud Rebelde in the IPS article indicates that internal reform has greater priority than fear of foreign enemies.

Without going into details about the UCI students’ meeting with Alarcón,
anarticle in the Juventud Rebelde newspaper said the announced reforms of
theCuban system, considered "a revolution within the revolution," would not
behindered, and that the recent media frenzy would not fuel internal"reactions"
aimed at blocking the reforms.
One can only speculate on the role of the very articulate son of Carlos Lage, head of the Federation of Cuban Students, and on the impact of Alarcon's responses for his prospects in the leadership change that may be announced on February 24th.

Of equal interest to what took place in Cuba is what took place in el exilio in south Florida. The Sun Sentinel ran an editorial suggesting the students' questions showed it was time for the US to reciprocate.,0,2986418.story

But if Cubans are willing to speak now, risk potential reprisal later, then the
global community needs to take note and act accordingly. Especially the
United States, which has sat on its hands for way too long. Washington can
do its part by, first, acknowledging publicly that the process germinating
in Cuba is important and desired. Then it can signal its intention to review
its own hard line diplomatic stance if the era of openness in Cuba
Others saw the event as proof the end of the regime was approaching and could only understand what took place by leaping to the conclusion that the students had been repressed because of their questions.Most intriguing was Miami Herald columnist Ana Menendez who used the incident predictably to beat up on Havana, but then turned to reflecting on changes needed in her own Miami community.

That the young are boldly confronting the old guard in Cuba, where there is
so much more to risk, should humble us in Miami.

The best way we can support them is to continue to question our own
homegrown orthodoxies -- those tired narratives of bitterness and hatred
that keep us from engaging. And believing.

Interview with the students

the original BBC broadcast segment

video of the complete meeting