Analysis by Rafael Lorente & Vanessa Bauza | Sun-sentinel.com
WASHINGTON—For the past two years, U.S. policy toward Cuba has focused heavily on aiding dissidents on the island and creating a loose network of writers, political opposition parties and independent dissident coalitions some say will be the framework of a future democracy.
The idea is not new. It is modeled after similar aid programs that helped prepare countries in Eastern Europe for the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
But much of the dissident network in Cuba was wiped out in April when Fidel Castro’s government sentenced 75 independent journalists, economists and political activists to up to 28 years in jail for allegedly conspiring with U.S. diplomats to subvert the Cuban government.
Now, the Bush administration must decide how to respond.
The White House could do as hardliners in the Cuban-American community advocate and try to isolate Cuba by suspending direct charter flights between the two countries, stopping cash remittances estimated at $1 billion a year from Cuban-Americans to their relatives and ending food sales by American companies to the island.
But as the White House formulates its response, which could come anytime, more moderate voices in the Cuban-American community seem to have a good chance of winning out. They are calling for more aid to Cuban dissidents, improved broadcasts of Radio and TV Marti and more pressure coordinated through international groups like the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
In other words, more of the same.
“I think we’ll look to do it in even more imaginative and aggressive ways,” said a State Department official familiar with U.S. programs on Cuba.
But some Cuba analysts say the U.S. policy of support for the dissidents has done more harm than good to the fractured groups that, as the recent crackdown showed, are often infiltrated by government security agents.
The stigma of receiving U.S. aid and being branded a “mercenary” by the Cuban government detracts from the dissidents’ work, said Julia Sweig, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“For as long as I’ve been studying this, the United States’ activism in its support for the dissidents has always hurt them,” Sweig said. “I think the best thing the U.S. could do would be to go totally free market on Cuba ... if the U.S. drops its barriers to trade and travel then it’s anybody’s guess what happens.”
She said the Eastern European model does not work in Cuba because of the four-decade old embargo on trade and travel that the United States has on the island. In Poland, for example, access to information was greater and there was no ban on trade and travel.’
The Cuban American National Foundation, the Miami-based lobbying group, which has been moving toward the center on Cuba issues, has been a leading proponent of aiding dissidents, rather than taking more drastic measures against Castro’s government. They met with White House officials recently to make their case.
And in spite of tough talk about isolating Cuba, the Bush administration’s policy has so far been about what the foundation has wanted.
The chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, James Cason, and his predecessor, Vicki Huddleston, made support for the dissidents a top priority. They opened up the U.S. Interests Section, which serves in place of a formal U.S. Embassy in Cuba, to opposition activists and independent journalists so they could borrow books and log on to the Internet. They also traveled across the island, meeting with groups in provincial towns and handing out thousands of shortwave radios to give Cubans access to foreign stations, including Radio Marti, the Miami-based, anti-Castro station.
The United States also spends millions of dollars a year funding private organizations that work to promote “civil society,” the loose network of residents who might one day form the foundations of democracy in Cuba. The organizations are not allowed to provide money directly to dissidents. But they do provide books, training materials or equipment like computers and faxes for journalists, while others publish studies on the best way to promote a democratic transition in Cuba.
In Cuba, some dissidents have criticized the U.S. Interests Section’s high profile support of the dissident movement.
“The facts show it has been counterproductive,” said Dagoberto Valdes, who heads a Catholic Church sponsored center to promote civil society in Cuba’s far western province of Pinar del Rio. “In Cuba it gives justification to those who attack the opposition.”
Organizing dissident meetings and an ethics workshop for independent journalists at Cason’s home was a mistake, Valdes said.
In recent speeches, both Castro and his foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque, have given detailed accounts of the meetings as proof that opposition groups are “fabricated” by the U.S. government and are not a homegrown movement.
“I would never have organized a journalism seminar in the home of a diplomat, I would have done it in the home of a Cuban journalist,” Valdes said. “If civil society has to be reconstructed in this country it has to be done by people in this country.”
Other dissidents support the U.S. Interest Sections’ high profile backing of Cuba’s fledgling opposition movement.
“From 1959 to the present if we had received the same support from other governments as we have from the U.S. government the Cuban problem would be resolved,” said Lazaro Constantino Duran, a dissident.
A State Department official familiar with Cuba policy agreed, and believes that is exactly what is happening as a consequence of the recent crackdown. The official said other governments are now stepping up their engagement with Cuban opposition leaders.
In the past, Spain and some Eastern European countries were the ones most likely to offer aid. Recently, both the British and Dutch embassies in Havana invited Cuban opposition leaders to national holiday festivities, giving them access and public stature at the same receptions that Cuban government officials and foreign diplomats regularly attend.
The question now for the U.S. government and those groups who aid dissidents is whether other opposition activists will come forward to take the place of those who were arrested.
“It has to be done at a pace determined by the opponents themselves,” said the State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.