In Cuba, Carter Got It Right

Jimmy Carter got it right. During his trip to Cuba, when he was permitted to deliver a speech on national television, he was critical of both the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba and Fidel Castro's anti-democratic regime. Albeit, as a good guest, he was, in tone, a bit tougher on the former than the latter. But Carter did call for radical change on each front -- the United States should end the embargo; Cuba should introduce political freedoms and democracy.

Wisely, he did not link the two. Carter skirted the Gordian knot of U.S.-Cuba policy, in which each side has indicated it will not change its ways until the other side does. Carter suggested that both the U.S. government and Castro were wrong to point to the other's misguided policies in order to defend their own failings. The embargo does not justify Cuba's denial of basic freedoms; Cuba's repressive political and human rights practices do not justify the U.S. embargo. But Carter, in his best Sunday school manner, did say that "because the United States is the most powerful nation, we should take the first step."

Carter's frank approach to U.S.-Cuban relations should be embraced by those Americans who oppose the embargo. For years, embargo opponents were mostly left-of-center folks. Recently, businessmen and ag-state Republicans, who see market potential in Cuba, have joined the anti-embargo crowd. In fact, when Carter was in Cuba, 40 members of the U.S. House of Representatives -- half Democrats, half Republicans -- called for lifting restrictions on travel to Cuba and increased U.S. trade with the island nation. (After all, the United States pursues free trade with China, hardly a beacon of free expression and open elections, and now supports virtually unrestricted trade with civilian groups with Iraq, a charter member of the "axis of evil.")

The left's arguments against the embargo have always been solid. Washington had no right to limit the right of Americans to travel to a nation with which the U.S. was not at war. The embargo, a heavy-handed and bully-like tactic, punished Cuban citizens for the actions of their governments. (When I was in Cuba in 1999, a writer there told me he craved copies of "Time" and "Newsweek," but neither could be sold, due to the ban.) Moreover, the embargo wasn't working. (Castro has outlasted eight presidents.) Yet it did provide Castro cover for his dictatorial behavior. We are being squeezed by the Yanquis, he and his lieutenants could argue, and that is why we cannot allow the unruliness of democracy and dissent.

But as progressives have mounted a principled opposition to U.S. Cuban policy, they have not, in general, been as vocal in advocating democracy and freedom for Cuba.

Tour de Cuba

I first noticed this failing when I went to Cuba with a group of lefties in 1983. I was the only journalist among a bunch of representatives of peace and social justice groups. We were treated as royalty by the Cuban government. We met with various leaders -- though not Senor Big -- and were given tours of schools, hospitals, and the Bay of Pigs. I was impressed with what I saw of the health and education systems, though I was disheartened to witness grade-school children being instructed in how to assemble rifles and taught this was necessary because the United States could invade any moment.

Despite the bad blood between Washington and Havana, a surprise U.S. invasion was not much of a possibility. And I was put off during an informal visit to a Catholic church when I encountered an old man who was paid by the state -- probably nickels a day -- to sit on a bench in front of the cathedral and monitor who came and went. Nor did I enjoy attending a meeting of a neighborhood watch committee, where old biddies -- mean-spirited busybodies -- were, with the backing of the state, keeping track of who on the block did what and when. It was gossip turned into low-tech Orwellian surveillance.

My tour mates were bothered by nada. At various meetings, they would voice their support for Cuba and hail the wonders they had seen. During a visit to a school, one activist was asked to address the schoolchildren before they headed to the fields to work. She raised her fist and shouted, "Viva the revolution!"

In the meantime, I continuously argued with our hosts about the lack of freedoms, the absence of fair elections, and the harsh treatment of homosexuals. None of the Cubans was angered by my criticisms; most seemed to enjoy sparring and fiercely defended their system, while, I suspected, they viewed my comrades -- the Che-wannabes -- with a degree of condescension.

Enemy of the State

Since then, I have believed too much of the American left is soft on Castro. He may be the enemy of the enemy (the Cold War imperialists of the U.S. government). He may be the victim of harsh and unfair Washington policies dictated by rightwing political thugs in Miami. And, when the Soviet gold was flowing, he may have achieved a higher standard of living for his people than that found in other Latin American countries.

But for decades he has been an enemy of progressive values -- the right to freely assemble, to dissent, to form trade unions. As Carter noted during his speech, the Inter-American Democratic Charter recognizes, "all citizens are born with the right to choose their own leaders, to define their own destiny, to speak freely, to organize political parties, trade unions and non-governmental groups, and to have fair and open trials."

Carter didn't have to add that Cubans enjoy none of that. In recent years, some forms of repression have become worse. In 1999, a law was passed making it nearly impossible for any Cuban to work as an independent journalist; it subjected non-state journalists to prison terms of up to 20 years. The state severely limits access to the Internet. Most Cubans can't surf. (Which may not trouble too many, since only 2 percent of Cubans have phones.)

During his televised speech, Carter noted that "most Latin American governments joined a majority in the United Nations Human Rights Commission in calling on Cuba to meet universally accepted standards in civil liberties," and he appropriately mentioned the Varela Project, in which hundreds of Cuban dissidents have gathered more than 10,000 signatures in an effort to force a national referendum on a law that would guarantee freedom of expression and association, amnesty for political prisoners, free elections and the right to private enterprise. (Under the Cuban constitution, the national assembly must vote on any measure brought to them by at least 10,000 registered voters.) Efforts like this deserve the support of the American left, which in previous decades vociferously and admirably championed the cause of human rights and democracy in Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and elsewhere.

That's the Breaks

Castro deserves no breaks. Not for having once toppled a corrupt, mob-linked regime, not for having brought better health care and education to Cubans. The left should agree with the right: His time is up, or ought to be. (It appears, however, that he's never going to leave office before his death -- and that, unlike the rest of us, he may never die.) Castro deserves scorn, and Cuba deserves a transition to democracy and a free society. I'm not even sure Carter should have granted Castro those high-profile joint photo-ops -- an official ceremony when Carter arrived, the two attending a baseball game -- but that may have been the price the former president had to pay to bring his message to Cuba and its people.

It might feel a bit uncomfortable agreeing on anything with the rightwing anti-Castroites, especially those who have supported anti-Castro terrorism, flooded the political system with campaign contributions to obtain influence, and tried mightily to intimidate and harass anyone who deviates from their line.

But on this trip, Carter showed one can be a firm opponent of the embargo and a critic of Castro's one-party dictatorship. In doing so, he demonstrated it is not necessary to pick a side -- Castro or anti-Castro. And if foes of the embargo clearly oppose repression in Cuba (and seriously call for reform), they might well enhance their political standing and, thus, improve the chances of overturning the foolish ban -- which George W. Bush wants to strengthen. The progressive stance on Cuba ought to be that both Castro and the embargo should go.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation.

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