What Are the Real US Aims in 'Bringing Freedom' to Cuba?

On April 13 the Obama Administration formally announced the lifting of travel and remittance restrictions for Cuba Americans. Other Americans, however, are still effectively banned from visiting the island. When asked recently by Latin American reporters, Vice President Joseph Biden said the U.S. would not lift its embargo against Cuba. He and President Obama want the Cuban people to "live in freedom." But what exactly does that mean? Foreign correspondent Reese Erlich looks at that issue in this excerpt and update from his book Dateline Havana: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Future of Cuba (PoliPointPress, 2009). For more info see reeseerlich.com


Since 1991 the U.S. government has fostered numerous university and think tank projects aimed at planning Cuba's imminent transition from communism to democracy. Beneath the rhetoric about self determination and respecting the rights of Cubans on the island, they describe means by which the U.S. can once again reassert control of Cuba. In 2004 the Bush Administration's Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba issued an elaborate report.

The U.S. would assist in developing the police and security services, building roads, bridges, and airports. Of course, the report assumed Cubans will welcome capitalism and U.S. foreign investment. The new Cuba would sign a U.S.-Cuba free trade pact, and join the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. "The U.S. Government and the IFIs [international financial institutions] should be prepared to assist a free Cuba in developing a new investment regime that fosters foreign investment and investor confidence, consistent with appropriate free market mechanisms." Cuba would have to settle outside claims "as expeditiously as possible," according to the report. Thus Cuban Americans who say their property was nationalized would either get the property back or potentially receive hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation.

According to these reports, if Cuba follows such pro-U.S. policies, its people would finally breathe the free air of democracy and eat the golden fruits of capitalism. Let's sketch out a more realistic transition plan based on the actual historical experience in Cuba and the former eastern bloc.

Cuba's government implodes

Let's say a economic crisis hits Cuba, and the Cuban government makes a series of serious political blunders. Cubans start fleeing to Florida by boat and raft. Angry Cubans demonstrate in the streets of Havana. Without either of the Castro brothers as leaders, the Communist Party splits. Some leaders take up the banner of democracy while others try a military crackdown. The situation worsens. The old power crumbles and new leaders come to power, much as happened in the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Cuban exiles from Miami hop the first planes to Havana, promising freedom, democracy and an end to economic injustice. At least initially, people welcome the exiles and hope the new system will meet their needs.

But very quickly a number of unforeseen elements of democracy emerge. The new government won't actually hold elections until political parties are organized and election mechanisms are in place. And they can't do that until the state controlled media are privatized and the Communist Party institutions dismantled. The U.S., through its Miami surrogates, will make sure the pro-U.S. parties are well funded and receive overwhelming media coverage. If Cubans opposed to the new system hold demonstrations, let alone take up arms, the new democratic regime would be forced to suppress them. The pro-U.S. political parties form militias to protect their interests, as they did before 1959. The U.S. sends in armed private contractors, military advisors and/or troops depending on the need. The new government won't hold elections until the turmoil subsides.

Even U.S. diplomats concede that the Cuban Communist Party has considerable popular support. Cuban communists, unlike many of their brethren in the eastern bloc, retain an ideological commitment to Marxism and an ability to mobilize ordinary people. The Cuban Army will certainly have set aside caches of weapons to wage guerrilla war. But even if armed insurrection and mass upheaval don't occur, the new regime will face massive problems.

Until now, Cuba has escaped the scourge of heroin and cocaine that has spread through Latin America. The Cuban government has adopted very tough policies to keep out the international drug cartels. But Cuba occupies a perfect geographic location to become a transport hub for drug lords, not to mention a lucrative new market. The Miami Cubans won't be the only ones on the first planes to Havana. Mexican, Colombian and other drug lords will send kilos and cash. The old, New York-based mafia will also seek to return to operate drug, gambling, and prostitution rings. But they've been out of touch for 50 years, so the drug lords of Colombia and Mexico have a natural advantage. A few violent gang wars should sort everything out. It took 10 years of horrific clashes in Russia in the 1990s, but eventually a few strong gangs emerged triumphant.

But won't the new democrats and the U.S. drug enforcement officials stop the mafia? The U.S. has conflicting interests on this issue. The drug trade is the perfect source of cash for pro-U.S. political parties and their armed militias. Sectors of the Miami elite already have lots of experience working with drug lords. In general, the U.S. would not like to see drug lords achieve new markets and share political power. But if the drug lords help pro-U.S. political parties, they become a tolerated evil. That's how the United States operated in the Batista days when some of his cabinet members were directly involved in cocaine smuggling. And this is not just ancient history. The U.S. immediately started cooperating with drug-running cabinet members in the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion of 2001.

The newly democratized and privatized Cuba would also face tough choices about how to handle the country's extensive social services. The Cuban government currently puts major efforts into educating doctors. They learn not only medical skills but are inculcated with a spirit of helping ordinary people. After graduation they serve two years in underserved communities. Government run hospitals and clinics provide the only new jobs in the medical field. Cuba's medical infrastructure does need improvement. The U.S. embargo and Cuban government mistakes have degraded parts of the system. The country needs new equipment and new buildings. After the collapse of socialism, U.S. hospital chains could set up branches in Cuba with modern equipment. They would also attract the best doctors by offering better salaries. Some Cuban doctors would open lucrative private practices. The government could continue to fund public hospitals, but how long would it take for the best doctors to migrate to the private sector, leaving the poor with second class care? And how long would it take for the cash-starved government to slash the health care costs to balance the budget? Good quality, free health care would become a distant memory. We don't have to speculate on this scenario. Russia's health care system went into cardiac arrest after Boris Yeltsin seized power in 1991. Partly as a result of poor medical care, life expectancy in Russia has actually declined since the early 1990s.

Black Cubans would suffer the most in this transition. The new, all-white elite from Miami would have little concern for them. Without health care, education, transport and other subsidized programs, black Cubans' economic conditions would plummet far faster than whites.

Even if you don't believe everything that I've sketched above, many Cubans do. The prospect of a pro-U.S. Miami elite running Cuba terrifies them.

The Future of US-Cuban relations starts in Washington

The decision to alter U.S.-Cuban relations will depend on developments in Washington, not Havana. Future administrations could decide that the changes in Cuba are significant and therefore initiate negotiations. They would certainly be opposed by the Cuba Lobby and entrenched anti-communists in the State Department and security agencies. On the other hand, a growing number of elected politicians, business people and grass-roots activists favor opening up relations with Cuba. The question is: will opponents of U.S. policy be able to reach a critical mass?

To some extent, the Cuba debate cuts across traditional political party lines. In recent years conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats have joined together to maintain the status quo on Cuba. A strong majority of Republicans and Democrats voted for both the 1994 Torricelli and 1996 Helms-Burton laws. George Bush Jr. tightened the embargo once again in 2004 with bipartisan support from such politicians as senators John McCain and Hilary Clinton. When President Bill Clinton was in office, many progressives hoped he would lift parts of the U.S. embargo during his second term when he no longer faced political pressure to get elected. He informally loosened the embargo by not pursuing civil fines against Americans traveling to Cuba. He also allowed Cuban musicians and artists to perform in the U.S. But otherwise, he continued the same stringent policies against Cuba as previous administrations. During her 2008 campaign for president, Sen. Hillary Clinton took a strident, hard-line against Cuba. She courted the Miami ultra-conservative vote by saying she would keep Bush's 2004 restrictions in place. Her position on Cuba was identical to that of Sen. John McCain.

Senator Barack Obama differed with Bush on some Cuba policies. He opposed the 2004 restrictions, reflecting the views of many Cuban-American Democrats in Florida. He voted against funding TV-Marti, saying it was a waste of taxpayer money. Sen. Hilary Clinton voted in favor of that bill. But Obama's differences were incremental. He campaigned in Miami using strident, anti-communist rhetoric. "Throughout my entire life, there has been injustice in Cuba. Never, in my lifetime, have the people of Cuba known freedom.  This is the terrible and tragic status quo that we have known for half a century - of elections that are anything but free or fair; of dissidents locked away in dark prison cells for the crime of speaking the truth. I won't stand for this injustice, you won't stand for this injustice, and together we will stand up for freedom in Cuba."

Ironically, some conservative Republican leaders -- not running for national office - sounded more conciliatory. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a conservative Republican from Texas, said, "I have believed for a while that we should be looking at a new strategy for Cuba and that is opening more trade, especially food trade, especially if we can give the people more contact with the outside world, if we can build up an economy that might make the people more able to fight the dictatorship. I think that's something that we should have considered a while back, honestly." Hutchison reflected the views of many politicians from farm states. Agribusiness could be making a lot more profits if the U.S. lifted the trade embargo.

Given the dynamics of Washington, it seems unlikely that any president will take the lead in changing Cuba policy. Pressure to change will have to percolate up from the grassroots to the House, Senate, and eventually to the White House.

Pressure to change policy

In September 2003 the House of Representatives voted 227-188 to eliminate the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba, and a month later the Senate voted to lift the ban by 59-38. Those majorities consisted of farm state legislators, liberals and libertarian-minded Republicans who opposed unilateral sanctions. Under the threat of a veto by President Bush, however, Congress dropped the bill. Strong critics of U.S. policy included progressives such as Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) and Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York) but also conservatives such as Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Florida) and Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas)

Philip Peters, a former State Department official and now a fellow at Washington's Lexington Institute, told me House Republicans play a crucial role on any Cuba vote. He divided them into three categories. "About a third vote in favor of lifting sanctions. A third is genuinely opposed to it. And another third vote to maintain the sanctions, although their real opinion is opposed. These are the same legislators who favor trade with China and  Vietnam."

That one third and their Democratic counterparts are subject to tremendous lobbying. For example, the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, funded by wealthy Cuban Americans from Dade County, Florida, contributed $446,500 to Congress members in 2006-07, including a minimum of $1000 to every 2006 freshman representative. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Montana) had supported loosening the embargo in order to help agricultural exports from his state. But he switched sides and received $10,500 in campaign contributions from the PAC.

But such groups are increasingly out of touch with the Cuban American community. According to a respected public opinion poll, 55 percent of Cubans living in Miami now oppose the U.S. embargo. Even some hard-line anti communist groups have admitted the embargo's failure.

For the U.S. to change course on Cuba, several factors would have to come together. Washington leaders would have to perceive Raul Castro's economic reforms as significant. U.S. business interests would need to pressure Congress and the president to lift the embargo. And the Cuba Lobby would have to face some political setbacks. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former top aide to Colin Powell, said Cuban Americans are starting to break with hard-line, anti-Cuba policies. "Ultimately that's the straw that will break the camel's back. But it will take time. Once we get Cuban-Americans feeling differently about Cuba, we will get a sea change. Let's face it, we have a stupid policy towards Havana."

And if the U.S. doesn't change policy, attorney and lobbyist Robert Muse told me, Cuba can afford to wait. "We're isolated on Cuba. Cuba needs a rapprochement with U.S. far less than it did 15 years ago." Thumbing its nose at the U.S., he said, "gives Cuba stature in the world."

So the ball is in the U.S. court. The question remains whether U.S. leaders are willing to play.

From Dateline Havana: The Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Future of Cuba  by Reese Erlich, 2009 . Published with permission from PoliPointPress, LLC, Sausalito, CA.


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