Cuba Politics

Both Cuba, U.S. must take the next step

Posted April 22, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Politics.

Max Castro | Miami Herald | Editorial

Are the bad old days returning to Cuba? The recent crackdown on dissidents and the execution of a three hijackers suggest that possibility. What, if anything, can be done to prevent a greater tragedy? It’s not an easy question.

Of course, Cuba has never been an example of democratic rule or political freedom. The government doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of any political opposition—aligned with the United States or not—nor allow the full exercise of political rights.

Yet in recent years, Cuba has tolerated dissidents, and many anti-government groups have sprung up. Watched, often harassed, dissidents nevertheless were able to function, including collecting thousands of signatures for the Varela Project. Even when dissidents were imprisoned, the sentences served were relatively light. In addition, the use of the death penalty, once common in Cuba, had been waning for years, and a de facto moratorium had been in place for some time.

This far-from-ideal situation was nonetheless in significant contrast to the decades immediately following the 1959 revolution. Then, no opposition was tolerated. A large-scale armed opposition was met with summary trials, widespread use of the death penalty and extremely harsh prison sentences.

Is a return to that era what the recent crackdown and executions—condemned widely around the world—signal? Not likely, unless a tragic set of mutual actions leads to a severe escalation in the hostile U.S.-Cuba relationship. So what is the explanation for the crackdown, and what are its implications for U.S. policy?

U.S. hard-liners say the Cuban government’s actions reflect nothing but that government’s repressive nature. They are calling for a tougher policy. This explanation fails to account for the relative tolerance of recent years or the change toward a more-repressive posture now. Nor does it say how more of the same medicine—hardening an already tough embargo and increased support for anti-Castro Cubans on the island—will do the trick this time.

The ineffectiveness of the embargo has been demonstrated by 40 years of failure to produce change. More recent developments suggest that the second track of U.S. policy, support for dissidents, has serious flaws and drawbacks, too. The dissident movement is deeply penetrated by Cuban intelligence, and its members are subject to arrest. ‘‘support for the Cuban opposition’’ has a nice ring to it for some people, but not to Cuban nationalist ears, even the ears of people who may want to see a change, just not one influenced by the United States.

Even if, contrary to Cuban government charges, not one single dissident ever received a dollar from the United States directly or indirectly, the existence of U.S. government programs endowed with millions of dollars to help dissidents promote transition makes dissidents vulnerable to being cast as traitors.

The most likely explanation for the crackdown is that the Castro government feels threatened by the Bush administration’s willingness to ignore niceties to change regimes that it dislikes. By cracking down on dissidents in the face of international outrage, the Cuban government is signaling that it, too, can play hard ball.

Retaliation by the United States would only make things worse, with the Cuban people the losers. The current climate makes a much-needed fundamental rethinking on both sides improbable, but both governments at least can take modest measures to prevent a fast descent into disaster.

Perhaps Cuba could begin by commuting or at least significantly reducing sentences and suspending the death penalty. The United States could assume a lower profile in Cuba, refrain from retaliation and rescind new measures that further restrict American travel to the island.

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