With Fidel Castro temporarily transferring his authority to his brother Raúl a number of days ago, the instability that could accompany any significant shift in the Castro regime is now under close review in Washington. The best that President Bush and Secretary Rice are able to do is exhort the leaders to turn to democracy. But such exhortations are small change compared to what is at stake in the game that is being played out in the Caribbean. Cuba, after years of malign neglect by one U.S. president after another, once again has landed on U.S. radar, but maybe too late. The relatively subdued nature of the words uttered from Crawford by President Bush and Secretary of State Rice were welcomed. Of course the explanation for this was that U.S.-Cuban policy, dating back to the Eisenhower administration, through Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton to this day, was spawned by the Cold War and Washington’s inability to make the transition to a time when old hatreds should exist no more, because they were no longer needed.
In response to what could prove to be only a short interregnum in Fidel’s rule, the U.S. has adamantly refused to change its position of non-negotiation with Havana, insisting that the advent of Raul won’t lead to any fundamental re-examination of the more than four-decade old embargo.
Why? Because after almost 50 years of attempting to asphyxiate the Cuban economy and strangle it politically, it is Washington that is on trial in Latin Amerca and Fidel Castro who has been welcomed throughout the hemisphere as a somewhat shelf-worn Socrates, but Socrates nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Washington at its hypocritical best is prepared to follow a policy of constructive engagement when it comes to negotiating with Iran and North Korea, or earlier with Libya, Vietnam, and China; but Cuba under Castro will never have its day. Such a stance reveals the shallowness of Bush administration policy towards Cuba. As former Secretary of State Madeline Albright put it, the ethical difference between China and Cuba, when it comes to democracy and basic guarantees, is $200 billion a year in trade in Beijing’s favor. Apparently that buys a lot of immunity when it comes to Washington’s pro-forma human rights zealotry.
The embargo has never worked nor has been able to draw a single convert amongst Latin American nations. For decades, Washington has maintained this double standard against Havana and has curtsied to Miami’s Cuban-American panjandrums’ deep pockets, who were prepared to buy for themselves an anti-Castro strategy from a White House preoccupied with its quest for Florida’s Electoral College votes, as well as hefty campaign donations.
So, here stands the Bush administration, a veritable paper tiger. It is devoid of leverage, because it can do no more damage to the hated bearded one than it already has tried and failed. Secretary Rice, like a Yalie ingénue for the first time in China, is amazed by everything. Her problem is that her knowledge of Latin America is in the low elementals, and is totally out of her depth in being able to deal with the crisis brought on by Castro’s illness. This country is powerless to affect current events in Cuba. Now that Venezuela and China have thrown a life preserver to the Cuban economy, Havana will soon have the opportunity to provide its citizens with a reasonable living standard. Furthermore, the recent discovery of oil deposits in Cuban waters suggests an even more promising financial future; however, under the current, spiteful U.S. regulations, it will be impossible for the U.S.’s private sector to fully benefit from over one and a half billion dollars in agricultural sales or offshore drilling in Cuban waters.
One explanation for why the U.S. is losing out on Cuba’s economic potential, is because its basic hemispheric orientations are seen through a distortive Cuba and Iraq prism, underpinned by the simplistic thesis that, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”
The ancient U.S. embargo against Cuba has not isolated Havana as much as it has shaken confidence throughout the region that Washington is capable of providing responsible and mature leadership. Although it later turned out to be illusory, the hope was that even a tiny softening of relations between Havana and Washington could have been sparked by several long overdue personnel moves within the State Department; such as the appointment of Thomas Shannon to succeed a widely reviled ideologue, Roger Noriega, who himself had taken over after the forced departure of Otto Reich, as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs. These should have marked the end of the hard-line anti-Castro duo, whose brashness and authoritarian manner have done so much damage to U.S. regional ties. But sadly, their replacements like Shannon, would-be theatrical empresario Michael Parmley, who otherwise is the head of the U.S. interest section in Havana, where he faithfully endeavors to out trump his comedic predecessor, James Cason, now U.S. ambassador to Paraguay, in the latter’s efforts to provoke confrontations between Cuban dissenters and the government, and professional Cuba basher Caleb McCarry, have been vending the same old snake oil.
The Bush administration needs to take inventory of how destructive its current regional policy is when it comes to advancing authentic U.S. hemispheric interests. It has in the past allowed right wing elements of the Miami exile community to exercise a virtual veto power over U.S.-Cuba relations, while showering its exile front groups and their pet projects with hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds, despite the disgracefully negligible results they have achieved. Breaking that linkage will be necessary if any fundamental shift to a rational policy of advancing well thought-out U.S. national interest is to occur.
Whatever Fidel Castro’s personal fate, recent events should serve as a wake-up call to the Bush administration: the embargo must end, because it has proven to be too costly, too ineffective, and too damaging to fundamental links with a Latin America for which Washington is fast losing its awe and thunder.