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Posted May 09, 2003 by publisher in US Embargo

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BY ALFREDO CORCHADO | The Dallas Morning News

WASHINGTON – Without fanfare, U.S. government efforts to promote political change in Cuba have shifted away from the subtle “people-to-people” contacts favored by the Clinton administration to a more confrontational approach, including direct support for dissidents, two U.S. officials say.

One senior U.S. official called the new focus a “pressure cooker” approach.

He and another official, a former diplomat, said that recent developments in Cuba, including the crackdown on opponents of Fidel Castro’s government, the execution of three ferry hijackers, and a Cuban government threat to close the U.S. Interests Section, were Cuba’s reply to a “significant shift” in U.S. Cuba policy. The two officials spoke separately and on condition of anonymity.

Officials at the State Department, also speaking on condition of anonymity, insisted that there has been no change in Cuba policy. They denied that the U.S. government is fomenting unrest in Cuba, and called the recent crackdown on Cuban dissidents a totalitarian government’s harsh reaction to growing internal dissatisfaction.

“There is absolutely no change in policy, no change whatsoever,” said a senior State Department official. “This administration will not waver from its aggressive pursuit of the support of Cuban civil society. There will be no stepping back. The question is how do we affirm where we are now and the vision that the president has articulated in terms of seeking a transition on the island.”
The conflicting messages from U.S. officials are evidence of a “contentious” debate within the U.S. government over Cuba, analysts said.

An internal policy review, aimed at updating Bush administration views on Cuba, is under way and may be announced by May 20, officials said.

Those who say that the U.S. government has already adopted a harder line cite several recent steps, including direct cash payments to individual dissidents an allegation denied by the State Department; frequent and direct criticism of the Cuban government by the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, James Cason; a sharp reduction in the number of U.S. visas issued to Cubans; and new limitations on the “people-to-people” contacts. The Clinton administration promoted these contacts between ordinary Americans and Cubans as a way to promote democratic change and spread American ideals.

‘Different paradigm’

The Bush administration has chosen “a different paradigm from that of the Clinton administration” to accomplish the goal of bringing democratic government to Cuba, the senior U.S. official said. “There are two sets of analysis and two sets of policies. Some people [in the Bush administration] prefer the pressure cooker” strategy.
Mr. Castro has launched the harshest crackdown on dissidents in decades, with the arrests of at least 100.

After summary trials that drew international condemnation, 75 dissidents were jailed some for as long as 28 years. Mr. Castro branded the activities of the dissidents a U.S. provocation. In addition, Mr. Castro ordered the execution of three people who hijacked a ferry in an attempt to reach the United States.

These steps have squelched efforts by moderates in the United States to promote closer trade and cultural ties with Cuba. As late as last fall, American business people, farmers, politicians and others were streaming to Cuba for trade shows, tours and conventions.

“Castro’s harsh actions have been a momentum stopper here,” said Stephen Johnson, a Latin America analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

“Our policy isn’t very smart,” said Phil Peters, a State Department official in the first Bush administration and a veteran Cuba observer who’s advising members of Congress pushing for an easing of the 42-year-old trade embargo. “It’s a policy that embraces Cuban dissidents too closely, is too much in the face of Castro, and gets under the skin of too many Cubans.”

Buoyed in part by victory in the war in Iraq, anti-Castro elements within the Bush administration backed by hard-line Cuban exiles favor funneling money to individual dissidents under Section 109 of the 1996 Helms-Burton law, the senior U.S. official said. The Clinton administration declined to take such action.

“The Bush administration, as is its prerogative, has agreed to do direct cash payments,” the senior official said. “The Clinton logic was, ‘We do not want these people to later have their homes raided by the police and have a whole bunch of receipts and American cash hanging around because then you’ll be setting them off and later being paraded as agents of the U.S. government’... which is what happened.

“This [policy] shift cuts to the heart of national dignity for Cubans,” said the senior official. “And it really helps the hand of those in Cuba who say this is subversion, that this is really to overthrow the government.”

Cash receipts alleged

In the recent dissident trials, government infiltrators of dissident groups produced what they said were cash receipts from U.S. officials.
A State Department official acknowledged that direct cash payments to dissidents wasn’t prohibited but said, “We’re not doing that.” Another U.S. official said allegations that the United States dispensed cash to individual dissidents were “patently untrue.”

The State Department official acknowledged that money issued under U.S. Agency for International Development grants and earmarked for Cuban nongovernmental organizations, including dissident groups, had “increased slightly.”

In fact, the total amount in U.S. taxpayer grants earmarked for Cuban nongovernmental organizations has doubled, from about $6 million during the last four years of the Clinton administration to more than $14 million in the first years of the Bush administration, with an additional $7 million sought for next year, a State Department official said.

To be sure, U.S. support of dissidents within a totalitarian society is consistent with a fundamental policy of promoting human rights throughout the world, officials said.

The chief U.S. diplomat in Cuba, Mr. Cason, has also been on a high-profile campaign criticizing the Cuban government. On Feb. 24, the day Cubans mark as the beginning of Cuba’s war for independence from Spain, Mr. Cason met with dissidents and questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Castro.

But a U.S. State Department official said the diplomat’s actions weren’t so different from those of the head of the Cuban office in Washington, Dagoberto Rodrguez.

Mr. Rodrguez regularly travels in the United States promoting economic and cultural ties with Cuba and thereby undermining U.S. policy to Cuba, the State Department official said.

But the senior U.S. official challenged the comparison, saying, “changing policy is one thing, overthrowing a government is another.”

The U.S. government has been sharply limiting U.S. visas to Cubans. Under a 1994 immigration agreement, the U.S. government promised to issue at least 20,000 travel documents a year to Cuban nationals.

For the first five months of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, only 505 visas were issued, said Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque. That compares with 7,237 in 2002; 8,300 in 2001; and 10,860 in 2000.

A senior State Department official said the U.S. government has the entire year to issue the 20,000 visas and will meet that commitment.

‘Too Cancn-like’

And a federal regulation announced in March virtually cut off the ability of Americans to travel to Cuba legally to take part in trade and professional exchanges. Over the weekend, the White House announced further restrictions on educational exchanges, saying that the trips were becoming “too Cancn-like,” a U.S. official said.
The growing U.S.-Cuba animosity has resulted in unprecedented travel restrictions for some Cuban diplomats and their children, a Cuban diplomat said. In one case, the daughter of a Cuban diplomat was denied a trip to a zoo with her elementary school classmates. U.S. officials said they had no knowledge of the incident.

Another U.S. official, the former diplomat, said that the endgame of some Bush administration hard-liners is to “create enough of a political and economic turmoil” on the island to help precipitate another mass exodus across the Straits of Florida, possible armed conflict and “ideally justify some type of U.S. intervention” aimed at ending the reign of the last communist leader in the Western Hemisphere.

A State Department official called that scenario “utterly ridiculous, stuff of wild fantasies. The only migration this administration wants is a safe, orderly and legal migration.”

Staff writer Tracey Eaton in Havana contributed to this report.

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