Research: Commentary

How Not To Encourage Liberalization In Cuba

South Florida Sun-Sentinel, April 16, 2003 | Article

By Wayne Smith

The arrest and long-term imprisonment of dozens of dissidents in Cuba and the execution of three men who attempted to hijack a boat represent so glaring an overreaction on the part of the Cuban government as to suggest a certain degree of irrationality, for they harm the Cuban government more than anyone else.

It had clearly given up on the possibility of any engagement with the Bush administration itself, but there was growing momentum in the U.S. Congress to ease sanctions. Any such initiatives are now very much on hold.

Cuba needs European and Canadian trade and tourists. Neither will be stimulated by the crackdowns. The European Union was considering new economic benefits to Cuba under the Cotonou agreements. That is now almost certainly down the drain. A rapprochement with Mexico also seemed to be jelling. That cannot have been helped by the crackdown.

The crackdown was a reaction to the hard-line policy of the Bush administration. Indeed, over the past few months its actions had become even more confrontational. It wanted regime change. As Interests Section Chief James Cason stated in Miami on April 7, one of his priority missions in Cuba was to promote a "transition to a participatory form of government."

Now, when I was in basic diplomacy class (granted, that was about 50 years ago) such a statement would have been regarded as violating the rules of diplomacy and as meddling in the internal affairs of the host country. One government might wish to see another move in the direction of a different form of government, but it tried to accomplish that by fashioning policies designed to encourage the other in the desired direction. It did not try to orchestrate the transition.

Those remain the rules of the game -- the rules of proper diplomacy.

Cason insists that he was not providing the dissidents with money. I'm sure he personally was not. But money for such independent groups in Cuba was written into the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which, in effect, calls for the ouster of both Castros from the Cuban government. The money goes to groups in Miami and they supposedly channel it to the right people in Cuba.

It turns out that many of those we are supposed to have been helping were state security agents who had infiltrated the dissident movement. They've now turned up at the trials of their "former dissident colleagues" to testify against them. Talk about not knowing what we're doing!

Over the past few years, we had seen a slow and grudging but growing tolerance of dissent on the part of the Cuban government. A positive response on the part of the Bush administration, however cautious, might have encouraged that trend. But now, thanks to its inflexibility, we have a massive crackdown with dozens of people in prison. It is the Cuban government doing the imprisoning. But the Bush administration must have known this was likely to be a consequence of its hard-line policy. It went ahead with the meetings anyway, doubtless hoping to provoke exactly the kind of overreaction it did.

There are other puzzling statements in Cason's April 7 presentation. He says that the U.S. remains "fully committed to the implementation of the 1994-1995 Migration Accords."

Hmm. Well, not really. Those accords call on the U.S. to provide 20,000 immigrant visas a year. But the Interests Section didn't process nearly that many last year and this year, almost halfway through the Oct. 1- Oct. 1 time frame, has processed only about 10 percent of the required number.

Nor, as I have pointed out before on these same pages, has the U.S. government lived up to the commitment it made in the 1994 agreement to halt the practice of giving entry to Cubans who reach our shores without proper documentation. We made the commitment because we were desperate to get the rafter crisis in the summer of 1994 turned off. But then, because of pressures from the exiles in Miami, once the crisis was passed, we chose to ignore it.

If we have another exodus from Cuba this summer, it will not be, as Cason says, because of the crackdown; rather, it will be because of worsening economic conditions and because the U.S. did not live up to its obligations under the Migration Accords. As the Cubans will put it: "If you don't honor your obligations, why should we honor ours?"

Wayne S. Smith, now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., was chief of the U.S. Interests Section from 1979 until 1982.

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

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