Cuba policy remains in far-right hands

By Charles Davis*

WASHINGTON DC, United States, January 23, 2008 – Concerned over the rise of “realist” influence over the final year of the Bush administration’s foreign policy might extend to Cuba, right-wing hawks are mobilising against any possibility that Washington might ease its hard-line stance, or its 46-year-old trade embargo against the Caribbean nation.

“Now, of all times, we must do nothing that will slow momentum toward genuine political change,” declared Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under President George W. Bush, at a conference devoted to Cuba policy hosted by the influential neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) here this week.

“There will be plenty of time to help the Cuban people rebuild their economy on firm foundations,” Noriega said, “but moving in prematurely to provide a modicum of material benefits to some Cubans may allow what’s left of the Castro brothers’ regime to bide a few more tragic days in power.”

The conference, which was held on the eve of President Fidel Castro’s announcement that he is too ill to return to public life and take part in Cuba’s upcoming parliamentary elections, came amid growing evidence that the administration’s realists, led by Pentagon chief Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have made major gains in asserting control over policy toward other U.S. nemeses, particularly North Korea, Syria, and even Iran.

But participants in the AEI conference, including a senior State Department official, made it clear that no changes were in U.S. policy were even being contemplated in the year that Bush has left as president barring the removal of both Fidel and Raul Castro and “democratic” reform was well underway.

“President Bush has clearly stated that changes in our policy will be driven by changes in Cuba,” said Kirsten Madison, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

“We want our businesses to engage in Cuba at a time and in a circumstance that they will be able to reinforce and support a process of change, not reinforce a repressive state,” she said.

While the State Department’s top Latin America official from 2003 to 2005, Noriega, the conference organiser, sought to discourage Latin American countries from improving relations with Cuba and worked to increase support for Cuban dissidents and Radio and TV Marti.

On leaving the administration, he joined AEI, a hub of neo-conservative and far-right foreign policy activism some of whose fellows and associates, such as former Defence Policy Board Chair Richard Perle and former Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, played key roles in planning and rallying support for the 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq. Vice President Dick Cheney’s spouse, Lynne Cheney, has been a long-time AEI “scholar”.

The United States maintained an across-the-board trade embargo against Cuba from 1962 until 2000 when Congress approved the limited sale of agricultural goods and medicine about 400 million dollars of which was exported last year.

But the administration has strongly opposed all attempts to further liberalise relations with Cuba and repeatedly threatened to veto legislation — passed by both houses of Congress — that would lift the long-standing travel ban by U.S. citizens to Cuba. Indeed, it recently announced it was stepping up prosecutions of U.S. citizens who violated the ban.

That policy has drawn protests not just from the Cuban government, which blames the U.S. embargo for many of its economic problems, but from much of the international community.

Last October, the 192-member United Nations General Assembly voted for the 17th consecutive year to call on the United States to lift the trade restrictions. Only Israel, Palau, and the Marshall Islands — all close U.S. allies — joined with the United States to oppose the measure.

When Democrats took control of the U.S. Congress in 2006, some expected they would attempt to loosen trade and travel restrictions to Cuba. Last April, New York Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel co-wrote an editorial with Arizona Republican Congressman Jeff Flake urging the new Congress to put an end to the embargo, arguing that “American openness is a source of strength, not a concession to dictatorships.”

But despite growing bipartisan support for engagement, the Democratic leadership has been reluctant to take on the issue. Many analysts suspect Democrats are wary of angering anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Florida, a critical swing state in November’s presidential elections.

In her remarks at AEI, Madison argued that ending the embargo would remove the U.S.’s only leverage over the Cuban government.

“Were we to abandon the embargo we would be like every other country, bought into the system in Cuba,” Madison told attendees of the AEI forum, arguing that critiques of the embargo were “utterly lacking in strategic context.”

“We would give up an important tool that might be used in a process going forward as things start to change,” she said.

She argued that no government led by Fidel or Raul Castro could conceivably promote democratic reforms and defined U.S. policy objectives in Cuba as “freedom writ large”.

“We know that what the Cuban people want is not just political rights, or not just economic rights,” said Madison. “They want freedom.”

But Wayne Smith, director of the Cuba programme at the Centre for International Policy (CIP) and former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, told IPS that those at the conference who believed that the Cuban regime was on its last legs were as deluded as their AEI sponsors were about the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

“Look, Cubans want change, but I don’t see any move whatsoever to overthrow the government,” he said.

Smith says a Cuban government led by Raul Castro is likely to be much more open and flexible than it was under his brother Fidel. He says the United States should promote reform by seeking to diplomatically engage the Cuban government and by putting an end to the embargo, which he believes has hurt the Cuban people more than it has the government.

Human rights groups also strongly criticise U.S. trade and travel restrictions as being counterproductive. Human Rights Watch says the U.S. embargo has imposed “indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people”, while Amnesty International says it has harmed “the weakest and most vulnerable members of the population”.

*With additional reporting by Jim Lobe. (IPS)