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American Meddling Keeps Castro in Charge

Author: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies
April 30, 2003
Financial Times


Cuba's recent crackdown on human-rights activists is the most extensive since the early years of the revolution. There can be no doubt that President Fidel Castro defines Cuba's national interest as the preservation of his regime. After all, there had been unprecedented bipartisan support in the US Congress for lifting the US embargo and Cuba was on the verge of winning favourable trade and increased aid from the European Union under the Cotonou agreement. The regime has sacrificed a staggering degree of diplomatic capital in order to curb what it sees as subversive foreign influences. In the words of one hardened observer: "Castro has stuck his face right into the American fist."

The crackdown is a victory for the hardliners in Havana, Miami and Washington who want change in Cuba and in the US-Cuba relationship only on their own terms. In Havana, this means rapprochement with America without linkage to concessions at home. In Miami and Washington this means trade and diplomatic ties as a reward only for regime change.

Those who expected, in the formulation of Pope John Paul II, an opening from abroad to yield an open society in Cuba have been dis-abused of such ideas. Europe's response has been to suspend Cuba's Cotonou application and downgrade ties. And those in the US wanting to change the regime, either by gradual engagement or more confrontational measures, now have an opportunity to rethink their strategy. For there is a lesson here for all those hoping for democracy in Cuba: the US must resist the temptation to meddle in Cuba's domestic politics.

Since the 19th-century wars of independence, Cubans have used Washington for political gain, either by currying America's favour and manipulating its power or by portraying it as a threat to the Cuban nation. US politicians have used competing Cuban factions to advance US interests on the island in the region and their own political interests at home.

With so many Cubans now living in the US, a shared tempestuous history and geographic proximity, the two countries are closely entwined. But it is a difficult relationship for any government in either Washington or Havana or, for that matter, for the Cuban diaspora. The US and Cuba are destined to live, as President McKinley put it in 1896, in "singular intimacy".

Still, the only remaining option for the US is to stop the Cuban regime from repressing its people in the name of fighting foreign monsters. First, the US should declare a moratorium until after the 2004 elections on all US government-funded programmes related to Cuba. The same goes for privately funded scientific and academic exchanges, the projects of think-tanks and others involved in making the case for normal bilateral relations.

Those involved will resist such a step. They will be loath to undo years of work building ties with civil society. For some, Cuba's crackdown argues for deeper engagement to promote democracy. Still, a temporary moratorium would be suitable response to Mr Castro's repression and would be a prelude to a more important second step: the White House should stop threatening to veto annual appropriations bills in Congress that carry amendments to end the trade and travel bans.

With these two steps - suspending programmes and allowing Congress to lift with bipartisan support the Cuba embargo - the US would limit the extent to which Mr Castro can mobilise nationalist sentiment against America in order to prop up his regime.

The alternative contemplated by the White House - halting remittances and direct flights - would squeeze the island so hard as to precipitate a new refugee crisis or even armed conflict. Political strategists in the White House and in Florida may gamble that President George W. Bush's prospects of re-election would be improved by a Cuban crisis. But that calculation could easily backfire, as previous candidates have learnt to their cost.

The most moderate Cuban government voices say they want "free competition" between the Cuban model and the US. Without punitive US policies to justify repression and to polarise Cuban politics, Cuba would have to compete on a different playing field. It is time to put aside the concern that Mr Castro will profit from such a reversal. A change in US policy could very well loosen the Cuban regime's grip on power once and for all.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Inside the Cuban Revolution (Harvard, 2002)

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