By Steve Brown | [url=http://www.CNSNews.com]http://www.CNSNews.com[/url] Staff Writer
(CNSNews.com) - Leading foreign policy experts Wednesday debated how best to conduct U.S. trade and travel policy in the aftermath of dictator Fidel Castro’s crackdown on dissidents in Cuba.
During the crackdown, the Cuban government executed three men convicted of terrorism in the attempted hijacking of a ferry filled with passengers bound for the United States. Castro also convicted 75 dissidents and handed them sentences of six to 28 years.
Some experts at the American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) roundtable Wednesday said Castro’s recent actions were surprising and “not politically rational.”
“I didn’t expect it,” said roundtable moderator and AEI scholar Mark Falcoff. “Castro has lived very happily with this growing civic opposition for some time and if you know anything about Cuba, you know it was in no way threatening to the government.”
Falcoff, who was conducting business in Geneva, Switzerland when the crackdown occurred, said Western European countries were “shocked and dismayed” by Castro’s actions toward the dissidents.
However, Philip Peters, vice president of the Arlington, Va., based Lexington Institute, a self-described “non-partisan research organization,” said the harsh treatment of dissidents resulted from an accumulation of American policies toward Cuba, including “measures and laws and speeches and warnings and statements.”
“[Cubans] see that we have a near total trade embargo against them,” Peters said, mentioning the U.S. policy of not allowing ships from countries that trade with Cuba to dock in any U.S. port for 180 days.
“Today the policy is one of promoting a rapid and peaceful transition to democracy for Cuba,” Peters said. “From the point of view of somebody who’s in the Cuban government, it sounds a lot like regime change.”
Peters recommended listening to the dissidents themselves, who he said, have advised the lifting of all travel bans and trade sanctions. By increasing trade, Peters asserted, the U.S. would be more assured of a proliferation of democratic ideals among Cubans and a transition to a freer society and government on the communist-dominated island nation.
He pointed to bipartisan groups of lawmakers in both the U.S. House and Senate seeking ways to expand travel and trade in Cuba, but conceded that Cuba really “blew it” with the crackdown by making those open trade relationships more difficult to achieve.
On the other hand Dennis Hayes, executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation said it was a mistake to be talking about a U.S. response. “We should be talking about an international response,” Hayes said. He favors collecting international support for U.S. trade embargoes on Cuba and building on the international shock over the recent crackdown.
“We should not do anything that stops the international outrage,” Hayes said. “This is not a U.S.-Cuba problem, although that is what Castro wants it to be. It’s an international problem and now we have an opportunity for once to work with our European and Canadian and Latin allies.”
Hayes added that U.S. politicians “don’t need to dance around the phrase, ‘regime change.’”
“I think this is something we can go to our allies and say ‘For once, we’re serious about this,’” Hayes said. “I think this administration, this president, is much more ideologically, philosophically and from the heart, more attuned to the idea of lifting people out of the misery and degradation that they suffer under.”
Yet Hayes disagreed with Peters on trade, saying Marxist regimes were “bad” to do business with because their economies always “implode,” pointing to the current state of the Cuban economy. The lifting of the travel ban would also fail in spreading democratic ideas, he said, because of Castro’s monopoly on information. Hayes said any groups seeking to expand travel and trade with Cuba would ultimately “fall apart” because of this.
“If they’re falling apart, somebody better tell them because the House and Senate working group is having a press conference right now where 55 members of the House and 13 members of the Senate are introducing a bill to lift the travel ban,” Peters responded.
The Wednesday press conference referenced by Peters involved Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who argued that, “The recent crackdown on dissidents in Cuba has convinced me, now more than ever, that our current policy is a total failure. By flooding the island with Americans bearing American ideals, Castro’s stranglehold on the country will be greatly lessened and Cubans will be exposed to freedoms that they’ve been denied.”
Peters said the U.S. should “rethink” its posture toward the Cuban dissidents, especially since Castro defended the crackdown by contending that the U.S. had fomented aggression by allowing the dissidents to meet with U.S. Interest Section chief James Cason, and by distributing books to them.
“In the context of this policy of regime change, for the U.S. to have ... this very direct, very clear, official, in-your-face embrace of the dissidents, I’m not sure that this posture…serves the dissidents well. I’m not sure that more of the same is what they need.”
Peters said U.S. support of the dissidents should be “done more quietly.” He said the right way to deal with the dissidents is to put their needs first.
“If Castro is going to take actions against them, he should do it with his own excuses and not any excuses that we provide him with,” Peters said.
Peters recommended using the same policy toward Cuba that former president Ronald Reagan employed against the former Soviet Union - encouraging American contact with residents of the communist country in order to expose those residents to ideas that compete with ones advanced by Castro. This would ultimately lead to the peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba, Peters said.