by Carlos Alberto Montaner
The upcoming January 21st visit to Cuba by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, Roberta Jacobson, aimed at officially restarting a dialogue with the Castro dictatorship, will prove to be problematic. The diplomat, who has always showed concern about issues of human rights on the island, will arrive in a very weakened position, as President Barack Obama has previously given away all of the U.S.’s negotiating leverage. Ms. Jacobson will now have working against her, at the very least, the five worst mistakes Obama made in his new Cuba policy.
To assume that he was ending a policy that had not worked. That’s not true. The aim to liquidate the communist regime ceased to exist in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson ended, by a stroke of the pen, all subversive operations against Castro and activated a strategy of “contention” somehow similar to the one used against the Soviet Union, based on three basic elements: propaganda, restricted economic relations and political isolation.
Those were Cold War measures against a country that has never stopped combating the United States. Ever since, Washington has not seriously tried to eliminate Castroism. In the first half of the 1990s, when the USSR had disappeared and Castroism lacked allies, it would have been very easy to put an end to the Cuban dictatorship, but Bill Clinton was not interested in eradicating the neighboring regime.
He could have done it, with the support or indifference of the Russia of Boris Yeltsin and foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, when Castro unleashed the “raft exodus” of 1994. He could have done it in 1996, when Castro downed the Brothers to the Rescue planes and authorized the murder of several American citizens over international waters. But Clinton didn’t even consider Cuba as an enemy country and limited himself to signing the Helms-Burton Act.
To Clinton, Cuba seemed to be a historic anachronism, a Jurassic Park phenomenon, but he was not interested in wiping that government off the face of the earth. At the time, the idea prevailed that Cuba was a decrepit tyranny that would collapse with time. It was, Clinton thought, a mole that would drop off. There was no need to remove it.
Perhaps Obama should have said that he was canceling some Cold War measures against a country that had left that era behind. But how to explain that, in July 2013, the authorities in Panama halted a ship clandestinely loaded in Cuba with 250 tons of war materiel? How to reclassify as “a normal country” a nation described as terrorist, an ally of the worst Islamic tyrannies — Iran and Qaddafi’s Libya — a regime that plots with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua to articulate a major anti-U.S. campaign not unlike the worst days of the Cold War? Don’t dozens of U.S. criminals, political and common, continue to live in Cuba, protected by the authorities?
Cuba was not a former enemy. It kept its anti-American virulence intact.
To cancel that policy of contention without having a strategic vision that defines the policy that replaces it and the objectives being sought.
It is obvious that what should interest the United States is that, in that island so close to its borders, in that land that has caused the U.S. so many mishaps, there should be a democratic, peaceful and politically stable government, so that no further migratory spasms occur, like the ones that have sent 20 percent of the Cuban population to U.S. soil. Costa Rica is a good example of that model of tranquil nation that I describe.
Also, what’s convenient to all, especially to the Cubans, is for Cuba to have a prosperous, developed and friendly society with which other nations can engage in many mutually satisfactory commercial transactions. The foolish “theory of dependency” characterized and summarized in the book “The Open Veins of Latin America” lacks any sense. To the U.S., a rich and tranquil Cuba is preferable to a roiling and impoverished Cuba.
Are those democratic and stabilizing objectives achieved by empowering a military dynasty notorious for its collectivism, its single party, and an absence of human rights? Is it possible to promote a rich society ignoring that Raúl and his military staff have divvied up the nation’s productive apparatus in Russia’s Mafia style?
Isn’t it obvious that, by not creating institutions of law that are able to absorb the changes and exercise authority in an orderly, peaceful and democratic manner, that island will experience new confrontations and conflicts in the not-too-distant future?
Obama thinks that he has solved a problem by amending relations with Raúl Castro. Wrong: what he has done is postpone that problem. In the near future, other crises will come up and they will drag the U.S. into them. It has been so since the 19th Century. That’s what happens when wounds are not permanently healed.
The damage that Obama has done to the democratic opposition. Perhaps it is the gravest of all. For decades, the message sent by the more credible dissidents to the dictatorship was very clear: “Let us sit down to talk and, among Cubans, let us find a democratic solution. The problem is between us, not between Washington and Havana.”
To that approach (which, with different shadings, was that of Gustavo Arcos, the Cuban Democratic Platform, and Oswaldo Payá) the regime responded with repression and accusations that it was a CIA ploy. But that outcome, as in Eastern Europe, as in Pinochet’s Chile, as in 1990 Nicaragua, was the best for everyone, including the United States, and it was the obvious road for anyone who might inherit the Castro brothers’ power, both of them on their final stage for biological reasons.
Nevertheless, to achieve this, Washington had to remain firm and refer the dictatorship to the opposition side whenever, directly or indirectly, the possibility of reconciliation was insinuated. The problem was between Cubans and had to be solved between Cubans. This was well understood by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the two U.S. presidents of the post-Soviet era, and this is what Obama has just invalidated irresponsibly, denying the opposition any chance to be an important actor in the forging of the island’s future.
Why engage in democratic reforms, Castro’s heirs will say, if we have been accepted as we are? Didn’t Roberta Jacobson say, on behalf of the U.S. government, that Washington held no hopes that the Castros would permit freedoms? On Dec. 30, 2014, exactly 13 days after the reconciliation was announced, the Cuban political police detained several dozen intellectuals and artists who attempted to carry out a performance on Revolution Square. What incentive is left for Washington to induce respect for human rights if Washington has made most of the concessions unilaterally?
This was expressed clearly by a high-ranking intelligence officer, Jesús Arboleya, a Cuban diplomat, expert in Cuba’s relations with the U.S. and Canada, in an interview with El Nuevo Día of Puerto Rico on Dec. 30, 2014. The newspaper asked him if he feared Obama’s new policy.
“If in the past, when they had all the power to impose their values, [that policy] didn’t work, why should it work beginning now?” was his answer.
The dictatorship is euphoric. It feels that it has carte blanche to crush the democrats without paying the least price. Lacking all sensitivity, Obama has contributed to weakening the opposition.
One of a moral nature. Beginning with the Jimmy Carter administration, a democratic doctrine for Latin America was gradually generated in the United States. The exceptionality of the region was cited for the purpose of defending democracy and freedom.
Either for strategic reasons or realpolitik, the United States could not order China to maintain a democratic behavior, but — in the same way that Latin America could be declared a region free of nuclear weapons — it was possible to declare Latin America free of dictatorships and human rights abuses.
That spirit culminated in the signing of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, signed by all hemispheric nations in Lima on Sept.11, 2001, the same day that the Islamic attacks on New York City and Washington took place. That document described the features and behaviors of the nations fit to participate in the Organization of American States. Cuba met none of those requirements. It was a despicable dictatorship, a carbon copy of the Soviet-Stalinist model.
Somehow, the text of that Charter, on which the United States labored arduously, put an end to the shameful tradition of permanent deals between Washington and the worst Latin American dictatorships throughout the 20th Century: Trujillo, Stroessner, Somoza, Batista, and a long et cetera. No longer valid was the cynical dictum: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s OUR son of a bitch.”
After the reconciliation between Obama and Raúl Castro, the United States is back to its old habits. At home, it delivers a great speech about freedom but negates it with its diplomatic behavior. True, that’s what many Latin American countries desired, but it remains a pity that, in inter-American relations, there is no space for moral considerations. The United States has needlessly sacrificed its position as an ethical leader and has returned to the worst moral relativism. A great pity.
One of a legal nature. The United States is a republic directed by the delegates of society, selected through democratic elections. Among them, the President is the principal representative of the popular will, but not the only one. There is a legislative power that shares many functions with the White House, and there is a Constitution, interpreted by the judiciary power, by which everyone must abide. As we all know, the essence of the republic is the division of power to avoid a dictatorship and to force the leadership to find formulas for consensus.
It is possible that the surveys will reflect that a majority in U.S. society will circumstantially support a reconciliation with the Cuban dictatorship — as in 1939 a majority supported neutrality vis-à-vis the Nazis — but that factor has only a relative importance. The United States, I insist, is a republic observant of the law and a representative democracy. That’s what matters, and it has little to do with surveys or the decisions made by an assembly of citizens.
Well, then; it’s very likely that Obama will spend a substantial portion of the two years remaining in his term explaining to the House and Senate why he deceived public opinion and the other powers of the state by telling them, even up to the eve of his joint announcement with Raúl Castro on Dec. 17, 2014, that he would make no unilateral concessions until the Cuban dictatorship took steps toward freedom and aperture. It was not a silent diplomatic maneuver. It was deceitful.
In the two chambers there are five Cuban-American representatives and three Cuban-American senators, Republicans and Democrats, who have enormous expertise on the subject. Shouldn’t the President have talked previously with them about his Cuban policy and sought their opinions and advice? Is there no civic cordiality in the White House? Didn’t Democratic Senator Bob Menéndez, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, deserve that consideration?
It is true that foreign policy is a prerogative of whoever holds the presidency, but the legislators have a clear role to play in that field and they all feel that the President has tricked them. In fact, some legislators believe that the President broke the law and they will try to prove that contention.
What Obama thinks will be part of his legacy — full and cordial relations with a military dictatorship — might turn into a nightmare. For now, it is a terrible mistake, which none of the 10 presidents who preceded him ever made. There must have been a reason.