By Thomas Oliphant | WASHINGTON | Boston Globe
AS RECENTLY AS a few months ago, an exciting and innovative human rights campaign within Cuba could count on opposition from two familiar camps.
One was Fidel Castro’s regime itself. Totalitarians, after all, do not look kindly on efforts like the Varela Project, which eventually turned in some 11,000 signatures on a petition seeking such subversive goals as freedom of expression and association, as well as an amnesty for nonviolent political prisoners.
The other source of opposition was the hardline wing of the opposition to Castro, both in the Cuban-American community and its political allies in the conservative movement. To them, a petition drive was both weak and a backdoor form a legitimization. The Cuba Liberty Council denounced the project and its leader, Oswaldo Paya Sardinas, for taking the anti-Castro crusade in the wrong direction.
Castro’s secret police were already harassing minor figures in the petition drive last year, well before a crackdown resulted in prison sentences for several dozen of the most prominent democracy activists and near-summary executions of three would-be hijackers of a ferry boat. The Cuban control machinery is always well-served by tension, especially when US fingerprints are on it.
The repression has also served the interests of the hardliners here. The Cuba Liberty Council may have denounced Paya and his petition project, but it was quick to take advantage of Castro’s crackdown, calling for the suspension of all travel by Americans to the island.
Now that another in the cycle of regressions both in US-Cuban relations and in the lives of the Cuban people is in crisis mode, it is easier to see who benefits from a policy that has failed for more than 40 years—Castro, as well as his most intense opponents in this country. Each sees its position strengthened by isolation, and each thrives by attacking efforts to promote gradual, peaceful change. But neither ever succeeds in making life better for a single Cuban.
Oswaldo Paya’s operating theory behind the Varela Project is that the most important source of change in Cuba must be the Cuban people themselves. In addition to opprobrium from hardliners in Miami and Havana, his efforts have won praise from the human rights community internationally and a nomination for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
His operating theory is also behind the latest efforts by Americans to promote new ideas that will serve US interests, support peaceful change, and oppose isolation as well as Castro. The recent outrages in Havana will set those efforts back, but they will go on because existing policy is such an unmitigated flop.
A Cuba policy group sponsored by the Center for National Policy recommended in January that ‘‘principled engagement should replace isolation as the core of US policy toward Cuba,’’ in the words of former Democratic Representative James Jones of Oklahoma, who led the inquiry that included three mainstream members of the Cuban-American community.
The report came after President Bush had moved policy in the other direction last year with new restrictions on US travel and entry for Cuban citizens. Bush has also put a high-profile person, James Cason, in charge of the US interests office there with a mandate to agitate publicly on behalf of dissidents. It is almost as if Bush were seeking to provoke Castro into shutting the 23-year-old office so that he can shut down the Cuban operation here.
The Jones group did not recommend ending the US trade embargo or recognizing the Castro regime, but urged steps that might find common ground. It concentrated on ending limits on remittances by Cubans here to family members in Cuba, facilitating travel and research, streamlining the system for selling food and medicine for cash ($200 million last year), and expanding trade to consumer items like clothing.
The Center for National Policy, with ties to the Democratic Party, nonetheless succeeded in tapping desires for a more effective policy within the Cuban-American community and opposition to the embargo from farm state Republicans and principled conservatives.
Its president, Maureen Steinbruner, has no illusions about the political impact of the Cuban crackdown here. She is positive from her experiences, however, that the engine for change will be the Cuban people and that they need more effective support.
The Bush administration has made clear that ‘‘regime change’’ in Iraq doesn’t translate to Cuba. That leaves the reality of human rights work—grubby and thankless, with progress measured in inches and frequent setbacks.
The isolationist alternative, however, never works and we have four decades of failed policy as proof.