ANDRES OPPENHEIMER | THE OPPENHEIMER REPORT | Opinion
The most convincing part of likely Democratic candidate John Kerry’s newly announced Cuba policy, unveiled in a telephone interview with The Herald on Friday, is that he would have a better chance than President Bush to mount an international campaign to push for a political opening on the island.
Granted, that’s not the part of the interview that will make the biggest headlines. Most media attention will probably focus on Sen. Kerry’s statements that he supports the U.S. embargo against Cuba but opposes the Bush administration’s restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba.
But, while President Bush’s aides will almost surely respond that sunbathers on Varadero beach will not topple Cuba’s dictatorship, Kerry’s strongest weapon to woo the Cuban exile vote may lie in drawing attention to the Bush administration’s greatest liability on the issue: its lack of international support to launch almost any diplomatic initiative to bring about change on the island.
‘‘I want to work with the international community to increase political and diplomatic pressure on the [Fidel] Castro regime to release all political prisoners, support civil society and begin a process of genuine political reform,’’ Kerry said.
What does that mean? I asked.
‘‘We’ve had a number of years in which the international community has refused to really be part of our efforts to deal with Castro,’’ he said. “I think American credibility is so difficult abroad with respect to Iraq and other areas, that it will be very complicated for this administration to get any kind of cooperation.’‘
KERRY IS RIGHT
On that point, there is little doubt that Kerry is right. The Bush administration’s war with Iraq, as well as its opposition to the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto clean air treaty and several other international agreements—as well as the recent reports and pictures of prisoner abuse in Iraq by American soldiers—has turned much of the world against the United States.
So when Bush rightly calls for stronger international reaction to Cuba’s execution of three people who were trying to escape the island last year or the 25-year prison sentences for 75 pro-democracy activists, few abroad listen. Cuba’s diplomatic isolation is not even discussed at international meetings.
I saw that first-hand last week, at the 58-country summit of Latin America and the European Union in Guadalajara, Mexico. The summit—attended by the heads of state of Germany, France, Spain and most Latin American countries—rightly condemned the U.S. humiliation of prisoners in Iraq and spent much of its time discussing a clause lashing out against Washington for its trade embargo on Cuba.
Yet, incredibly, the summit participants didn’t even mention the killing of 104 prisoners in Honduras that same week, nor the executions in Cuba, nor the fact that Castro has sentenced peaceful opponents to decades in prison for things such as possessing a typewriter or distributing leaflets.
When I asked a democratic South American president whether the summit shouldn’t criticize human rights abuses everywhere, he shrugged and said, “Iraq changed everything.’‘
Kerry showed little enthusiasm when I asked him if he would seek greater international backing for the Varela Project, the petition signed by more than 30,000 Cubans on the island to hold a referendum on whether to hold free elections.
While he has supported the Varela Project in the past, Kerry told me that it ‘‘has gotten a lot of people in trouble, . . . and it brought down the hammer in a way that I think wound up being counterproductive.’’ Kerry added that he would try to ‘‘open possibilities’’ toward change through greater ‘‘face-to-face contacts’’ between U.S. travelers and Cubans.
My conclusion: Kerry is right about international diplomatic pressure and wrong about not being more upbeat about the Varela Project, especially when the European Union has embraced it wholeheartedly.
Much like we are seeing now in Venezuela, or like we saw in the 1989 plebiscite against dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, or in the 1990 elections against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, the most effective tool against an authoritarian regime may be an active internal opposition with a concrete petition, like the Varela Project. Without it, Kerry’s international diplomatic offensive would have nothing concrete to press the Cuban dictatorship about.