BY PABLO BACHELET | Knight Ridder Newspapers
Four new Bush administration appointments to positions that affect U.S. policy on Cuba, plus a pledge to restart a presidential commission on the island’s future, are stoking hopes among some Cuban-Americans for a further tightening of sanctions on Havana.
Among their hopes are a revision of the 1995 immigration agreements with Havana that led to the wet-foot, dry-foot policy for Cuban migrants and the full implementation of Helms-Burton sanctions against some foreign investors in Cuba.
The personnel changes on Cuba policy are part of the biggest reshuffle of the State Department’s Latin America team since President Bush took office in 2001. Chief among them is the arrival of Thomas Shannon as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, the region’s top diplomatic post.
Shannon’s previous post running the Latin American team at the White House’s National Security Council went to Dan Fisk, a former aide to retired Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who helped draft the Helms-Burton Act in 1996 and has consistently advocated for hard-line positions on Cuba.
Fisk, formerly the No. 3 in the State Department’s Western Hemisphere team, with responsibilities over Cuba, Central America and the Caribbean, boasted last year that the recent tightening of U.S. sanctions is “challenging the regime in a way that it has not been challenged at least in the last 25 years.”
Among other new Cuba faces: Michael Parmly, the head of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, and Stephen McFarland, the head of the Cuban affairs desk at the State Department in Washington, who both quietly took over this summer.
Then there’s Caleb McCarry, the Cuba transition coordinator at State Department - a potentially powerful post filled in late July after it was recommended by a Cabinet-level panel that Bush created, the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba.
McFarland is a career diplomat specializing in Latin America and last served as the deputy chief of mission in Venezuela, where he made a name for himself by daring to go outside the U.S. embassy compound to confront anti-U.S. demonstrators. At the Cuba desk he replaced Kevin Whitaker, who took over McFarland’s old job in Caracas.
Parmly, a human rights and European affairs expert with recent stints in Afghanistan and Bosnia, replaced James Cason in September as the head of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana - a sort of embassy because the two countries do not have formal diplomatic relations.
A catholic, Parmly has been attending Mass regularly in Havana and is thought to be reaching out to the church in Cuba, an institution that might play a role in post-Castro Cuba. But so far he has kept a low profile compared to Cason, whose public displays of support for dissidents regularly infuriated Fidel Castro’s government.
But Cuban-Americans are especially encouraged by McCarry’s comments to The Miami Herald that he wants to reconvene the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, whose recommendations last year led to a tightening of sanctions intended to deny outside resources to the Castro government.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would head the commission, although some Washington analysts speculate that Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American, may be asked to act as co-chair.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” said Frank Calzon, who heads the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba. “It means that despite the many urgent and important things that are going on, the secretary will focus on Cuba and the region.”
McCarry declined to give details on the commission’s future work. He said only that the idea is to follow up on the 2004 report, which looked at ways to hasten and prepare for the fall of Castro.
“At this point we’re going to be looking at where we are and where we want to go,” said McCarry, long an influential but little known House International Relations Committee aide close to the panel’s powerful chairman, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill.
Otto Reich, a former Bush White House special envoy to the Western Hemisphere who worked closely with the commission to develop its recommendations, said an update was due on several U.S.-Cuba policy fronts.
Reich said the commission could review the policy in which Cuban migrants interdicted at sea are returned to the island, while those who land here are allowed to stay. He called the policy unfair because the U.S. government never turned back refugees fleeing communist countries in Europe.
But critics say the 2004 report, and any future moves by the commission, are just another example of failed U.S. interventionism on Cuba.
“None of the steps have the slightest possibility of bringing down the Castro government,” said Wayne Smith, a former head of the U.S. mission in Cuba and now with the Center for International Policy, a Washington advocacy group.
Some Cuban-American activists also hope that President Bush will enforce a long-suspended provision of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act that denies visas to foreigners who invest in Cuban properties seized by the Castro government from Cuban citizens or residents. Some in the State Department oppose that sanction because it could anger European and Canadian investors.
“Our hope is that he’s going to peel away at some of that bureaucracy,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, a director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee.
McCarry declined to answer questions on enforcing the provision of the Helms-Burton Act. But his office door has a sign pinned on it that says, “Viva la Helms-Burton.”