Cuba Politics

James Cason’s diplomacy in Cuba - Pro and con debate

Posted September 27, 2005 by mattlawrence in Cuba Politics.

By FRANCES ROBLES | Miami Herald

Corporal Cason wears a pink robe and with a swing of his magic wand—poof!—the cartoon character converts one of Cuba’s free medical clinics into a private hospital adorned with Mastercard logos.

The character in the comic strip Transition Man is the Cuban government’s answer to James C. Cason, the outgoing top U.S. diplomat in Havana and thorn in Fidel Castro’s side since his arrival there in 2002.

‘‘Dictatorships are not good at humor,’’ Cason said during a recent speech at the University of Miami. “The cartoons inadvertently reminded all Cubans that a transition is inevitable, exposed the regime’s scare tactics and converted me into an icon of dissent.’‘

In Cason’s score book, that was another win for himself.

This month he ends a three-year tenure at the head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, a period noted by high-profile publicity efforts that he says helped make household names in Cuba of not just Cason but also political prisoners.

Using Christmas decorations and other props with political twists, Cason made himself the most outspoken U.S. diplomat to ever hold the post.

He met often with dissidents, had them over to his house and boosted their Internet exposure.


Cuba says he was a rude subversive who tried to foment a counterrevolution. When 75 dissidents were arrested and sentenced to lengthy jail terms in 2003, the Cuban government blamed Cason for their arrests.

‘‘No one can deny that the chief of the Interests Section arrived with instructions to carry out provocations of all kinds against Cuba,’’ Castro said in a 2003 government TV show.

“I must recognize nevertheless that he has fulfilled the instructions of the Department of State with absolute seriousness, efficiency, rapidity, decisiveness.’‘

Cason is a career foreign service officer who speaks four languages—and is learning Guaraní, an indigenous language, for his upcoming posting as ambassador in Paraguay.

He has served in 15 countries over 37 years.

He’s no stranger to controversy. Early in his career, he was tossed out of Uruguay when his negotiations for the release of political prisoners held by a dictatorship were deemed to be interference in the nation’s internal affairs.

And he caused a stir from the start of his assignment to Havana when he inquired about bringing along his 24-foot fishing boat.

Soon after his arrival—without the boat—he took on a role no Interests Section chief had before when he personally intervened in an airplane hijacking, telling the hijacker of a Cubana Airlines flight that he would be unwelcome in U.S. territory. His intervention didn’t help: The plane took off, landing in Key West, and the hijacker was sentenced to 22 years in a U.S. federal prison.

Cuban officials took notice of Cason’s high-profile approach and even had the official Granma newspaper publish some of his writings on the dangers of illegal migration attempts to the United States aboard homemade vessels.

But they fumed over his meetings with dissidents and prisoners. Cuba soon ordered him to stay in Havana.

‘‘He has traveled the island, meeting with dissidents and repeatedly showing rude behavior,’’ government intelligence analyst Manuel Hevia said of the U.S. diplomat when the move was announced. “His actions are provocative . . . and his language offensive.’‘


Cason kept at it.

He used the front entrance of the Interests Section as the setting for political displays that irked the Castro government. He posted a large ‘‘75’’ along with the Christmas display last year, in reminder of the 75 jailed dissidents.

During a diplomatic reception, Cason displayed a replica of the tiny prison cell where dissident physician Oscar Biscet was being held. And late last year, he buried a time capsule in the garden of his Havana residence to be opened the day Castro’s government collapses.

‘‘I discovered that symbols were the most compelling means of conveying the repressive nature of the Castro regime,’’ Cason said. “In Cuba, certain symbols are readily understood.’‘

Castro countered with his own symbols: An enormous billboard of photos from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was posted just outside the Interests Section.

Cason said his exhibits caught the attention of the international media and were filtered back into Cuba through photos, Internet sites, contraband satellite dishes and the U.S. government’s TV Martí.

Suddenly, he said, the most uninformed Cubans knew there were 75 new political prisoners in Cuba.

Cason insists he developed his own ideas to tweak Castro’s nose. But it’s clear that he had the backing of the Bush administration, which has steadily tried to tighten U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

‘‘This is not one wild ambassador doing whatever he wants,’’ said Jaime Suchlicki, director of UM’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies. “This was administration policy. . . . He’s been made a national hero in Cuba.’‘

Some of his actions were considered undiplomatic showmanship. ‘‘I found it undignified,’’ said Peter Hakim, president of the InterAmerican Dialogue, a Washington think tank. “It was almost as if he was trying to carry out shows in the media, rather than seriously help the dissidents.’‘

Cason was not dissuaded.

The prison-cell display now sits in the consular section of the Interests Section, where more than 60,000 visitors a year will see it. Visa seekers get free access to several Internet kiosks there and 100 daily copies of El Nuevo Herald, The Herald’s Spanish-language sister paper.


Those projects and more, Cason told the UM audience, will continue under his replacement, Michael Parmly, a former principal deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

‘‘Promoting democracy in Cuba is not a sprint, but an ongoing relay race,’’ Cason said.

“I’ve lost 40 pounds and I’m feeling a bit out of breath, but Michael is about to pick up the baton and race right past me.’‘

Member Comments

On September 27, 2005, jesusp wrote:

Mr. Parmly’ name will no doubt be added to the long, long list of American officials that have tried, undiplomatically, to change the course of Cuban affairs.

On September 27, 2005, publisher wrote:

I don’t mind making my opinion public on this “diplomat”. I don’t think any true diplomat should act the way Mr. Cason did while in his position.

His behavior was intentionally provactive and blantantly rude to his hosts. He constantly acted as though the average Cuban person was stupid “allowing” Fidel Castro to be their leader.

He was disrespectful and NOT a diplomat. According to this article he has only held jobs for two years at a time. To me that means that once his boss sees Cason’ true (lack of) talents he gets “promoted” to another position in a DIFFERENT country.

The guy is a just a tool who enjoys getting interviewed by the press. He always has and probably always will do stupid things. Sad thing is that someday he will do something stupid and be made to look like a hero rather than the pure idiot that he is.

So there, I’ve kicked off the debate of James Cason…hero or idiot, I mean pro or con. Let’ see the Cason supporters make a case for his strategic planning and successful mission in Cuba.

Good luck.

On September 27, 2005, jesusp wrote:

Of course you are right Mr. Publisher, however, Mr. Cason is just a tool of a foreign policy which has failed for the last 44 years and the only ones that do not see it are the ones carrying it out.

On September 28, 2005, bernie wrote:

james cason has always been on my list