Research: Commentary

Dismal Diplomacy

South Florida Sun Sentinel, March 27, 2003 | Article

By Wayne Smith

It is true that even had we given the U.N. inspectors more time, in the end we still might have had to use force to disarm Saddam Hussein. But it is also true that with competent diplomacy and a little more patience, we could have gone to war with the full support of the U.N. and of the overwhelming majority of other nations.

That, however, was to expect too much of the Bush administration, for whether we are talking about the Middle East, North Korea, Venezuela or a whole series of other states and episodes, its diplomatic record is dismal. Its inept tactics, its bullying style, have alienated countries around the world -- including many who were once our close friends.

Cuba, of course, was not considered to be among the latter; relations with it were already poor, but they are now nearing a crisis point.

We have read much over the past few days about the Cuban government's deplorable crackdown against dissidents. Dozens have been arrested, including a number connected with the so-called Varela Project. Others are threatened with arrest. Yet, less than a year ago, during his visit to Cuba, President Carter met with many of these same dissidents. He spoke of the Varela Project on national television and his words were carried two days later by the official Cuban press. It was thus that many Cubans learned about the Varela Project for the first time. Further, both before and after Carter's visit, many other Americans, myself included, met regularly with these Cuban dissidents and human rights activists and expressed support for their efforts to encourage a more open society.

All this was done in a context of full respect for Cuban sovereignty and as part of a broad effort to emphasize the need for dialogue and to improve relations between our two countries. Thus, the meetings were accepted by the Cuban government, however unenthusiastically, and it seemed that things might slowly be moving toward somewhat greater tolerance.

What happened to change that prognosis? Why the crackdown? Essentially, because of hardening attitudes and more aggressive tactics on the part of the Bush administration. For the past six months, for example, the new chief of the U.S. Interests Section, James Cason, has been holding meetings with dissidents around the island, passing out radios and other equipment to them and holding press conferences after the meetings in which he has been pointedly critical of the Cuban government.

Questionable diplomatic conduct at best, though obviously he has been acting on instructions, but the point is that the purpose of those instructions certainly has not been to improve relations. Quite the contrary, when seen against the backdrop of a U.S. policy which, in effect, calls for regime change, the whole effort seems to the Cubans subversive in intent. The Helms-Burton Act, after all, does call for the removal of the two Castros from power. Hence, state security organs have arrested the dissidents, not for expressing opinions against the Cuban government, but for "plotting with American diplomats."

Cuban suspicions on this score are not assuaged, certainly, by statements such as those of State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, who reacted to the whole episode by saying that the arrest of the dissidents reflected the desperation of the Castro government, which "realizes that it is nearing its end." In other words, he is saying, the regime change we want must be near at hand.

The Cuban government has raised the possibility of closing the two interests sections in retaliation. One hopes the Cubans will think twice about that, especially as that would seem to be precisely what the Bush administration is hoping for. What better way to close off contact than by provoking the closing of the interests sections?

Then there are also the matters of massive visa denials to Cuban officials and academics, of refusals to allow the donation of computers and other equipment to Cuban children's hospitals, of tightened travel controls on U.S. citizens, and of various other newly instituted measures.

What it all comes down to is that rather than responding to majority public opinion and beginning to ease tensions and engage with Cuba, the Bush administration is not only sticking to the same old hard-line policy of threats, embargo and trying to isolate the island, it is actually showing increased hostility, perhaps in the hope that just a little more pressure will bring about Castro's downfall.

But that policy and those tactics haven't worked in over 40 years and they won't work now. Quite the contrary, they are likely to backfire.

Wayne S. Smith's foreign service experience in Cuba extended from 1958 to 1982, when he retired as chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Since then, he has traveled to Cuba several times a year, as both a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.

Copyright 2003, South Florida Sun Sentinel.  Original article available here.

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