Research: Commentary

Playing To The Exiles Hurts Dissidents' Cause

South Florida Sun-Sentinel, February 14, 2004 | Article

By Wayne Smith

Over the past two and a half years, the Bush administration has adopted an increasingly hostile, threatening attitude toward Cuba, even as a strong majority in the Congress has moved in the opposite direction, to lift travel controls and ease other sanctions against Cuba.

The latter, it should be said, are not motivated by any desire to help Castro; rather, their argument is that the old policy of embargo and pressure hasn't worked in more than 40 years, and, thus, if we want to see Cuba move in the direction of a more open society, we should try something new -- especially in the case of travel controls, which are seen also as a violation of the right American citizens to travel where they wish.

The administration, however, is totally opposed. Over the past few months, it has cracked down on the travel of American citizens to Cuba, denied visas to more and more Cubans -- including musicians going up for the Grammy awards in Los Angeles -- and closed off channels for dialogue, even in early January suspending the twice-yearly migration talks.

Talks, you see, are inconsistent with a policy aimed at regime change, and that is now the administration's leitmotiv regarding Cuba. As Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega put it to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 2 of last year: "The president is determined to see the end of the Castro regime and the dismantling of the apparatus that has kept him in office for so long."

To achieve that goal, the president has now appointed a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba with the goals of bringing about "an expeditious end of the dictatorship," and then developing a plan to assist the Cuban people in "a post-dictatorship Cuba."

The commission so far includes representatives of the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Calling for the ouster of another government goes beyond diplomatic norms and will not be supported by the international community. Further, short of military action, which so far doesn't seem to be on the drawing board, it is hard to see how the commission plans to "get rid of Castro." They speak of tightening the embargo, but that hasn't been decisive in the past and isn't likely to be more so now.

They speak also of supporting the "internal opposition," the dissidents.

Now, in their efforts to expand the parameters for freedom of expression and greater civil rights in Cuba, the dissidents deserve our moral support and expressions of solidarity.

But when the Bush administration says it will use the dissidents to bring down the present Cuban government, it does the latter a distinct disservice, making them thus appear as the paid agents of a foreign government working for the overthrow of their own. It places them in a false and dangerous position. In fact, it was precisely this perception that helped lead, however unfairly, to the massive arrests of dissidents last March.

In trips to Cuba in December and January, I met, as I always do, with leading dissidents, including Vladimiro Roca and Oswaldo PayM-a, all of whom expressed deep misgivings about the Bush administration's approach.

Both Roca and PayM-a specifically questioned the validity of a commission designed to plan a transition in Cuba. "That is up to the Cuban people," Roca said, "not the United States." And both said they would accept no assistance whatever from the United States. As PayM-a put it, "most of that money will stay in Miami, but the very fact that it is on the books encourages the Cuban government to accuse us, unfairly, of receiving assistance from a foreign power. U.S. talk of assistance, in short, doesn't help us; it harms us."

Further, while the dissidents have a role to play in pushing for greater respect for civil rights, they do not have and are not likely to have the strength or following even to think of bringing down the government. Nor, as most, including the dissidents themselves, see it, is that their role.

Treasury Secretary John Snow's speech in Miami on Monday was symptomatic of the whole approach. He talked of "cracking down" and "cutting off American dollars headed to Castro" by making it illegal for Americans to deal with a series of Cuban-owned travel agencies without a license. But that was already the case. All travel providers must have licenses to deal with those companies, so despite its tough tone, the speech in fact changed nothing. Even so, it probably pleased the hard-line exiles in Miami.

And that is what the whole tactic seems to be about. There is nothing in the administration's plan for regime change that will in fact "get rid of Castro." Rather, in this, an election year, the objective would seem to be simply to play up to the hard-line exiles in Miami by suggesting that is the objective -- and never mind the consequences for the dissidents in Cuba, for the Cuban people, or for other U.S. interests.

Original article available here.

Copyright 2004 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. 

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