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Posted April 09, 2003 by publisher in US Embargo

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By Brian Alexander | Cuba Policy Foundation


Responding to the severest crack-down by the Castro government on human rights activists in recent memory, on Tuesday, April 8, 2003, the U.S. House of Representatives passed by an extraordinary 414-0, a resolution “regarding the systematic human rights violations in Cuba committed by the Castro regime; calling for the immediate release of all political prisoners and supporting free elections for Cuba.”  The measure (H. Res. 108-179) was introduced by Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL21), one of the most strident defenders of the U.S. embargo. 

In a telling signal of Congressional outrage over the dissident crack-down, all but two Representatives of the 50 member House Cuba Working Group, a coalition formed with the intention of easing the embargo, supported the Diaz-Balart resolution.

Specifically, the House resolution was a reaction to arrests by the Castro government in March of over 80 Cuban dissidents, human rights activists, independent journalists, trade union leaders and others, and the subsequent sentencing of many of these individuals to year jail terms as long as 27 years.  Amnesty International has suggested that many of those detained may be prisoners of conscious, who’s only offense may be “the non-violent exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and association,” a view widely reflected in a growing list of other organizations and governments who have condemned the arrests and sentencing.  For the latest coverage of the arrests, visit [url=http://www.cubanet.org/cubanews.html]http://www.cubanet.org/cubanews.html[/url]

Tensions in the U.S.-Cuba relationship are leading many to question what course to expect in U.S. policy toward Cuba in the months ahead.  Over the past several years, anti-embargo proponents have grown in strength and number, both in South Florida and across the United States.  Several measures to ease the embargo passed in the House and Senate during the last Congress, including efforts to end enforcement of the travel ban, lift the restriction on private finance of farm sales, and others.  In both the House and the Senate, bipartisan Cuba Working Groups have been formed with the goals of easing the embargo.  And, a January 2003 analysis by the Cuba Policy Foundation indicates that majorities exist in both chambers for an end to the travel ban.

Is such momentum for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba now lost due to Castro’s crackdown on dissidents?  Indeed, it seems safe to say that the “charm offensive” by the Castro government is over.  That is, the apparent strategy by the Cuban government to appeal to members of Congress through politically targeted farm purchases, and efforts to court American public opinion have been trumped by actions against human rights activists that are woefully unacceptable by most Americans’ standards. 

How the crackdown will impact efforts to ease the Cuban embargo, such as those led by the House and Senate Cuba Working Groups, has yet to be determined.  But close observation of several factors will be instructive on which direction the Cuba policy debate will take in the months to come. 

First, is the question of how far Castro will go toward increasing tensions and souring relations?  Many observers were surprised by the severity of the crackdown, given growing support among the U.S. Congress and the American people for a change in Cuba policy and Cuba’s assertion that lifting the embargo is one of its top foreign policy priorities.  The Cuban government claims to be reacting to “provocations” by the chief U.S. diplomat in Havana, James Cason, who had met with many of those dissidents arrested.  This would signal an apparent shift in focus by Castro toward the U.S. executive branch, which as President Bush has indicated, is intent on maintaining the embargo, at the potential expense undermining efforts by those in the legislature who would support easing the embargo.

Castro already has taken a first step, in addition to the initial crackdown, toward setting the U.S.-Cuba debate on a negative course.  The sentencing, so far, of at least half of those arrested, many for twenty year terms, makes it less likely that the dissident crackdown can soon be forgotten as long as dissidents are held in Cuba’s prisons.  Members of Congress on delegations to Cuba had met personally with several of those who have been given decades-long jail terms, including prominent dissident Martha Beatriz Roque and others. 

A second indicator of the direction that Havana wishes to take relations with the United States would be the provocation of some kind of obvious crisis, such as the expulsion of U.S. diplomats or the closing of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the unleashing of a rafter crisis, or some other bold, dramatic act, perhaps akin to the 1996 episode wherein the Cuban government shot-down two U.S. planes over international waters. 

A third, indicator of the direction Havana may take relations relates to Cuban purchases of U.S. agricultural commodities.  In 2002, Cuba purchased $138 million in U.S. farm goods, under a 2000 U.S. law allowing such sales, which made Cuba a top-fifty U.S. agricultural export market.  These sales fueled interest among Americans in trade opportunities in Cuba, and bolstered the already growing push in the United States for easing the embargo.  Should Cuba reduce such purchases, it could have the short-term effect of reducing commercially-driven American interest in easing the embargo.  A more subtle shift in commercial relations would be if Cuba reduces politically targeted agricultural purchases.  The Cuban government made little secret of a strategy of attempting to stimulate interest for easing the embargo by making farm purchases from key states or Congressional districts of members of Congress who may support easing the embargo.  Even if Cuba continues making farm purchases from the United States, a reduction in targeted purchases could indicate something about Havana’s intentions.  It is important to note that, to date, there are no indications that farm purchases have slowed. 

What, then, to expect from U.S. lawmakers?  A key determinant of the course that the U.S. debate over the embargo will take relates to the way in which the dialogue - the rhetoric - over Cuba among lawmakers and among the American people takes shape in the days and weeks ahead.  On the one hand, arguments for easing the embargo and seeking a fresh approach toward Cuba are as credible today as they were a month ago.  That is, easing the embargo would be in America’s national and economic interest, and would be a productive step toward eventual political and economic reform in Cuba.  Dislodging Castro through sanctions has failed, and the latest set of deplorable behavior by the Castro government only confirms what was previously known about Cuba’s repressive regime.

However, should the debate remain fixated on Castro’s actions rather what would be an effective U.S. policy to advance America’s national interest and to affect a positive change in Cuba, sentiments for opening the embargo could be lost among the chorus of cries condemning Castro.  The dissident crackdown provides pro-embargo hardliners with such an opportunity to take control of the Cuba debate.  Whether they will succeed remains to be seen, and depends on the manner in which lawmakers focus on Castro versus focusing on American interests and a productive policy for bringing change to Cuba.

Another element to monitor in the U.S. policy debate is the role of United States’ so-called “track two” efforts to promote civil society and democracy in Cuba.  Mr. Cason’s meetings with dissidents were part of a vigorous track-two program by the Bush administration.  One effect of this program, however, was to provide the Castro government with justification (albeit bogus) for rounding-up dissidents on the grounds that they are agents of the U.S. government - amounting to what one observer called a “decapitation” of Cuba’s dissident movement.  As this debate takes shape, some will argue that the crackdown was a sign of the success of track two, because Castro’s reaction indicates that he viewed it as a threat.  Others will suggest that track two backfired, and that civil society in Cuba is now worse off than ever.  The crackdown is likely to increase the sense of urgency with regard to the need for successful programs to promote political reform in Cuba; while track two the debate may differ with respect to method, it is likely to be unified on goals.

The Cuba Policy Foundation will monitor the Cuba debate and its ongoing developments.  Please contact the Cuba Policy Foundation for more information or with questions or comments.  Call 202-321-CUBA (2822). ###

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