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Cuba: Will Washington’s Blindness Continue to Prevent it from Registering the Fundamental Changes Now Taking Place in Havana?

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Changes being introduced by Raúl Castro are fundamental and probably irreversible. One of the most anticipated leadership transitions of this epoch—that of Fidel Castro in Cuba—has been underway for the better part of a year in the absence of political instability or the upheaval predicted, or hoped for, by American policymakers and exiles in Miami. While George Bush and Condelezza Rice continue to deny this reality, and the administration produces fanciful studies by self-serving ideologues rather than bona fide specialists, which one expert has aptly described as “American occupation plans” for the island, the Cuban people have indicated their strong support for the inevitable end of the “era of Fidel” and the beginnings of a decisive new phase in the Cuban revolution’s history.

As the Cuban Parliament convened on February 24 to chose a new Council of State—the nation’s supreme governing body responsible for selecting the President—the most influential Latin American political leader of the twentieth century, recovering from a life-threatening illness, has retired gracefully to a position of éminence grise and keeper of the flame. Castro’s brother Raúl already has made it clear that he does not want to be “President for Life” and is committed to transferring power to a younger generation.

In any event, day-to-day operations of the island already are in the hands of Cubans other than Fidel, as is long-term planning evidenced by Raul Castro’s unacknowledged offense to “dialogue” with Washington following the Democrats’ victory in the 2006 mid-term congressional elections.

No matter how dramatic a change the transition from Fidel’s leadership to that of his brother’s will represent for Cuba, Latin America and the world, the significance of this new leadership will depend less on how the Cubans behave than on decisions and conditions originating in the White House and the Department of State.

Since the end of the Cold War, Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership have maintained their historic socialist commitments, but with a pragmatic adaptation to new global realities forced upon them by the collapse of the island’s economic lifeline—the Soviet Union. In other words, while still invoking the language and props of Marxism-Leninism, Castro was turning Cuba to a reintegration into the world capitalism system—albeit within a socialist framework—and without sacrificing the revolution’s heralded social welfare achievements.

Even during the 1980s, Castro’s disagreement with Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev was not over the need for perestroika (economic restructuring) and glasnost (political openness) but over the wisdom of pursuing both at the same time. Economic reform, Fidel argued, would unleash widespread initial hardship on islands and if the populace could simultaneously vent their anger at the ballot box, that would only invite the electorate to bite the hand that was trying to feed them. As subsequent events proved, Castro’s realism trumped Gorbachev’s innovativeness.

Since then, however, Cuba under Castro selectively, but at a limited tempo, opened up the economy to market forces. State controls were relaxed in certain sectors, encouraging foreign investment, legalizing the possession of American dollars, focusing on tourism as a key hard currency earner, and generally adapting the country to the post-Cold War world on the basis of appropriate state-to-state relations rather than revolutionary adventurism.

While the authoritarian political structures have not been dismantled—for which a still reluctant leadership bears its share of responsibility—the absence of change in this sphere must also be put in the context of unremitting, hostile and destabilizing U.S. pressure aimed at reining the island back into Washington’s traditional sphere of influence.

Left to its own devices, post-Castro Cuba would probably evolve into a social democracy—probably one of the few genuine social democracies in Latin America—intent on preserving its national independence and little more. Cuba would, in other words, likely become, for the first time in 50 years, a non-issue in regional and global affairs.

This transformation would not necessarily entirely occur under Fidel’s brother, Raúl, who, at 76 years of age, is likely to be a transitional figure primarily concerned with maintaining the country’s stability and security against outside influence.

Rather, Cuba’s long-term future almost certainly will be decided by a younger group of middle-ranking Cuban officials who understand that the Revolution’s gains in health care, social and economic access and education are intensely valued by large numbers of Cubans—as is the country’s sense of national pride and independence—but who are also pragmatic about the need for further economic reform and for ordinary people to have a say regarding how they are governed.

However, here’s the question: will Cuba be allowed to make this transition without guidance from Washington? Every U.S. president since Eisenhower has sought to “win back” Cuba. George W. Bush is no exception. Indeed, his determination to eliminate Cuba’s revolutionary government and institutions has revealed itself to be more unyielding than the imperious attitudes of his two post-Cold War predecessors—George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

In his first comprehensive policy statement on Cuba in May, 2001, Bush set down the general administration “line,” declaring: “The policy of our government is not merely to isolate Castro, but to actively support those working to bring about democratic change in Cuba.” This led to a swamp of murky funding of scandal-ridden Miami-based extremist groups and costly, if essentially worthless, boondoggles like Radio and TV Marti.

Washington’s approach over the past seven years has been not only to ignore United Nations and European Union calls to end the economic embargo against Castro, but moved to tighten it where possible by implementing new travel restrictions to successfully pressuring European and Canadian banks to limit their dealings with Cuba. Last December, a U.S. General Accounting Office report concluded that U.S. sanctions against Cuba were more restrictive than those imposed on any other country, including Iran and North Korea; and that over 60% of all investigations conducted by an ideologically-driven Treasury Department office responsible for enforcing trade sanctions dealt with the Cuba embargo rather than with demonstrably more portentous matters.

The ultimate absurdity and pettiness of the embargo appears to know no boundaries. For instance, the prestigious U.S. professional organizations, like the Latin American Studies Association, which holds an international congress every 18 months, no longer meets on North American soil because of the Department of State’s rather pathetic refusal to give visas to bona fide Cuban academics to attend.

At the same time, the Bush White House has channeled substantial funds to dissidents on the island, as well as supported efforts of Cuban exiles in Miami to wage ideological warfare against their ancient foes in Cuba. The White House refused to apply the anti-terror laws passed by Congress in 1994 and 1996 against these same exiles planning terrorist attacks against Cuba. Only last October, Bush encouraged members of the Cuban armed forces to no longer “defend a disgraced and dying order,” but to “embrace your people’s desire for change.”

The Bush administration also has suffered considerable embarrassment as the result of a failed attempt to include Cuba on a listing of so-called “Axis of Evil.” This list is comprised of states supposedly intent on developing weapons of mass destruction, the basis of which, as it turned out, was of no credible evidence whatsoever. The egg on its face over this ongoing debacle has not dissuaded the Department of State from posting Cuba on its list of states supporting international terrorism—once again on a basis of evidence so flimsy as to be an insult to the informed reader’s intelligence. Moreover, Cuba has signed all of the UN anti-terrorist resolutions and was rebuffed by Bush hardliners when it offered to sign agreements to cooperate with U.S. efforts to wage the war against terrorism, or when it offered to provide aid and medical attention to Katrina victims.

Washington continues its absolute refusal to dialogue with the Cubans in the absence of preconditions which no self-respecting independent state could accept—including the total dismantling of the revolutionary state and what remains of its command (or welfare) economy. It is this goal, of course, that, despite the rhetoric about electoral democracy, remains the fundamental objective of U.S. policy. While Raúl Castro has repeated his desire to enter into discussions with the Bush administration, his “olive branch” has been met with inane assertions that no transition has taken place, and that the White House will only dialogue with “the Cuban people,” and that every senior and middle-level official connected with Fidel Castro’s government is beyond the pale. Such meretricious conditions were never even demanded of North Korea or Iran, nations (unlike Cuba) with which the U.S. might have had a legitimate complaint.

Bush has other—perhaps even stronger—reasons these days to want to meddle in Cuba once Castro is gone. With Iraq a disaster zone, Afghanistan the same, and America’s Middle East policy in tatters, a victory for Bush in Havana could overshadow his egregious foreign policy failures in every other direction.

That is not to say that the U.S. would be so foolish as to consider invading or, as in 1961, to support an armed intervention by anti-Castro Cubans. But it could choose to hasten the transition in a preferred direction by backing individuals and groups in Cuba (including out-of-control right-wing zealots in Miami) who support its ultimate objectives irrespective of how non-representative they are of Cuban popular opinion.

For Washington’s purposes, the danger in this approach is that it could generate conflict on the island, which in turn could spill over into another massive refugee exodus on at least the scale of the boatlift of 125,000 Cubans from the port of Mariel in 1980, a scenario that had a disastrous impact on President Carter’s reelection plans.

Any such outflow of refugees would not only be a nightmare for the U.S., but also a source of anonymous instability throughout the Caribbean.

Given Washington’s myopia on Castro for most of the last five decades, its understanding of Cuba’s internal affairs is almost dysfunctional in its lack of reliability. The Europeans, the Canadians, and a majority of Latin American nations, for instance, have always been prepared to deal with Castro’s Cuba (albeit critically) for years, and in so doing, have become much more familiar with, and realistic about, the political dynamics inside the country.

Time and time again, by contrast, Washington’s Cuba policy has demonstrated that wishful thinking and pandering to Washington’s most base instincts is no substitute for informed policy making.

Even if Bush refrains from a dramatic reaction to Fidel’s effective departure from the scene in Cuba, the prospects for a serious revisiting of the mainsprings of U.S.-Cuba policy and the rejection of the counterrevolutionary option any time soon, are all but non-existent. Two of the three remaining candidates for the 2008 U.S. presidency continue to advocate a hardline approach; only Barack Obama holds out the possibility of a more pragmatic Cuba policy in the future. But after Clinton, McCain and the Washington punditocracy attacked Obama’s purported naiveté in suggesting a dialogue with Havana, he reverted to a precondition stance, talking about “beginning the process of democratic change” as the basis for normalizing relations and easing the embargo.

The Colombian novelist, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, once related how, at the very start of the ground-breaking visit to Cuba by Pope John Paul II in 1998, Castro reacted to the news that the three top US television networks were pulling out their anchors because of breaking news about a White House intern by the name of Monica Lewinsky. “Those damned Yankees always f*** up everything,” Castro declared.

When Fidel goes, the odds are short that “those damned Yankees” will again confirm the accuracy of the old revolutionary’s assessment—in death as in life.

Chris McGillion and Morris Morley are both distinguished Australian Latin American scholars. They are also Senior Research Fellows of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and the co-authors of Unfinished Business: America and Cuba after the Cold War, 1989-2001 (Cambridge University Press) and co-editors of Cuba, The United States and the Post-Cold War World (University Press of Florida)