Since becoming Acting President of Cuba last July, Raul Castro has on several occassions offered to begin a dialogue with the United States. Each time, the offer has been rejected. Speaking to the Council of the Americas on February 21st, U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez made it clear that this will not change, that the Bush administration will not deal with the “successor regime” in Cuba. Instead, Bush will continue efforts to bring down the Cuban government.
Bush's efforts began back in 2003 with the formation of the President’s “Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba.” As Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega explained its purpose back then: “The president is determined to see the end of the Castro regime and the dismantling of the apparatus that has kept him in office for so long.”
In May of 2004, the Commission issued an almost 500-page report that suggested the Castro government was near collapse. Just a few more Radio Marti broadcasts and a few more travel license denials and it would all be over. The United States, the report suggested, would then come in and show the Cubans how to run their country -- how to operate their schools and make their trains run on time. So confident was the Bush administration of Castro’s impending demise that on July 28, 2005, it appointed a transition coordinator for Cuba. As one critic noted at the time: “At least in Iraq they waited until they had invaded and occupied the country before appointing a transition coordinator!”
Even Cubans who had their disagreements with their government did not want to be told by the U.S. how to run their country. Elizardo Sanchez, Cuba’s leading human rights activist, was quoted in an EFE dispatch as calling the appointment “counterproductive.”
Oswaldo Paya, the dissident leader of the Varela project, objected strongly saying that “any transition must be coordinated by Cubans and only by Cubans, and most certainly not by someone appointed by the U.S. government. The very idea is harmful to our cause.”
More than two years after the issuance of the first report, at a ceremony on July 10, 2006 presided over by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Commerce Secretary Gutierrez, the co-chairs of the Commission, a new report was issued called a “Compact With the Cuban People.” Doubtless in response to the unfavorable reaction in Cuba to the old report, the new one stressed that solutions must come from Cubans on the island. The U.S. simply stood ready to support their initiatives. But having said that, it went on with page after page of recommended actions, from reorganizing the economy and the educational system to the holding of multiparty elections -- all of this provided, of course, that the Cubans on the island wished to initiate them....And the U.S. transition coordinator remained in place.
The original report’s premise that the Castro regime was on the verge of collapse was undiminished. But this simply reflected its divorce from reality. For rather than collapsing, the Cuban economy shows strong signs of reinvigoration. It has a new, vitally important economic relationships with Venezuela and China. The price of nickel, its principal export, has reached an all-time high. And there are strong signs of a new oil field off the north coast, for which various nations are already bidding for drilling rights. Even the CIA pegged Cuba’s economic growth rate in 2005 at 8%. It will almost certainly be higher for 2006. If the oil field comes in, its all over for U.S. policy.
The 2006 “Compact” also sought to rule out a “succession strategy” -- i.e. that Raul Castro, the First Vice President, replace Fidel Castro if the latter became incapacitated -- as called for by the Cuban Constitution. It called on Cuban citizens and the international community to insist instead on an entirely new government, one elected by the people.
There was no response at all to this call. Yet, when on July 31st Fidel Castro announced that because of a delicate intestinal operation requiring an indefinite period of recuperation he was signing power over to his brother, who would now be Acting President, there was dancing in the streets of Miami and elation in Washington. The expectation in both was that the revolutionary system in Cuba would quickly collapse. As one exile reveler in Miami put it: “The Cuban people won’t put up with Raul Castro more than two weeks.”
Wrong again. Almost eight months later, Raul is governing the country smoothly. There has not been a single protest or disruption; rather, the Cuban people have accepted the transition with calm maturity, and there is every indication that they will continue to do so.
In short, the Bush administration’s expectations for regime change have proved strikingly wrong, and its efforts to bring that about through such measures as travel controls and increased Radio and TV Marti broadcasts are pathetically ineffective. But the administration gives no sign of giving up on this failed policy. On the contrary, in his remarks on February 21st, Gutierrez said the U.S. would stand by its present policy, ready to “help the Cuba people hasten the day for a transition government, for the moment when the Cuban people demand freedom.”
And when that day comes, he assured them, the U.S. would provide emergency food, water, fuel, electrical power, and medical equipment -- and would help them rebuild their economy.
But Cubans may have serious reservations about such offers in view of the Bush administration’s glaring failure to provide just such assistance to its own people -- to the victims of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast -- or to rebuild, or just restore water and power, in Iraq. As a Cuban friend put it to me during my last trip to Havana in February: “The U.S. reputation for nation building goes up in the smoke rising from the ruins of Iraq!”
Wayne S. Smith, a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. and an Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is the former Chief of the U.S. interests Section in Havana (1979-82)
Please e-mail PostGlobal if you'd like to receive an email notification when PostGlobal sends out a new question.