Global Policy Forum

Getting Smart About Cuba


By Lissa Weinmann*

Foreign Policy in Focus
March 7, 2008

The announcement of Fidel Castro's retirement and the subsequent election of his brother Raul Castro as Cuba's new president came as no surprise to Cuba experts and certainly not to the Cuban people themselves. Most Americans, though, seemed to expect that the passing of Castro - however it should happen - would be a convulsive event for Cuba. Instead, the changes happened peacefully and quietly, illustrating how U.S. perceptions of Cuba are, in general, painfully ignorant. It's time we recognized why.

The fact that Cuba holds non-compulsory elections every five years, in which approximately 95% of Cubans vote, may surprise many Americans. While some may dismiss this systematic practice of political participation as a sham, others recognize the grassroots discussions that do occur in Cuba through a vast, deep network of community and religious groups, block associations and other "organizations of the masses." Whatever one's point of view, events of the past days indicate that the Cuban people have readily and peacefully accepted the results of these elections and are ready to move on.

Others are not ready to move on.


Similar to what happened with Iraq, where a disgruntled contingent of an exile community spun its own "intelligence" that helped lead us down the path of war, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike, the United States has allowed and underwritten a wealthy, politically entrenched subset of hardline, pro-embargo Cuban-Americans determine policy despite the best interests of much larger sectors of the population.

While Cuba evolves, U.S. policy will remain static as long as this special interest group sets the terms by which any opening can occur. These hardliners know U.S. ultimatums will never work to bring change to Cuba; they don't expect them to. The hardliners' goal is to punish the perpetrators of the Cuban revolution and create the chaos and institutional breakdown in Cuba that might allow them to regain a foothold on the lost island of their fantasies.

It's curious that the policy of our nation is set by members of Congress who have never set foot on the island, and Cuban-Americans who fled a civil war for the safety of U.S. shores so long ago

The United States has, in part, been unwittingly ensconced in a small-time family-feud with Fidel Castro. After all, the father of two members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Florida - Republicans Lincoln Diaz Balart and Mario Diaz Balart - was a close cabinet confidant to former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, whom the Revolution threw out. Their aunt was Castro's first wife, Mirta Diaz Balart, who left Cuba with Fidel's first son, initiating a custody battle that eerily presaged the crisis over the custody and residency of young Elian Gonzalez eight years ago.

Even Hillary Clinton's sister-in-law, Maria Victoria Arias, is a pro-embargo Cuban-American Miami lawyer responsible for the Clintons' campaign contributions and consequently hard-line views on Cuba. Florida Governor Jeb Bush, President George W. Bush's brother, ran the campaign for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban American member of Congress. Embargo Industry

Beyond the blood ties, there is a more subtle and significant architecture that supports the status quo. It's a taxpayer-funded "embargo industry" that employs hundreds, if not thousands, whose livelihoods depend on Cuba remaining, well - Cuba. It began during the Reagan years with appropriations for Radio and TV Marti that today top $500 million to beam U.S. propaganda into Cuba. In the case of TV Marti, even $225 million can't buy Cuban viewers since the Cuban government jams the signal. But a half a billion bucks does buy jobs, contracts and political loyalties.

Almost simultaneously, hardliners helped create the National Endowment for Democracy. One of the agency's first grants went to the powerful Cuban American National Foundation - a group that delivered the first Cuban-Americans to Congress. Since 2000, NED has provided at least $4.9 million to Cuba related pro-democracy programs.

The windfall from these first programs emboldened the hardliners to write more legislation funding more work for Cuba democracy-builders, that is - embargo supporters - in Miami and worldwide. U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) grants to "support political transition in Cuba" totaling more than $40 million have gone primarily to Miami-based groups since they were first doled out in 1996.

Despite a 2000 Price Waterhouse investigation that questioned the effectiveness of the USAID Cuba program, Bush called for a doubling of USAID funding for Cuba in his 2004 Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba plan. (Theplan was drawn up by Cuban American Otto Reich, a Bacardi lobbyist and former USAID administrator whose U.S. Cuba Business Council received $600,000 in USAID funds before he entered the White House as Special Envoy to Latin America.) Between 2004 and 2006, approximately $35 million in funds had been transferred to groups working to hasten a "transition" in Cuba.

In the plan, $5 million was earmarked for a public diplomacy effort to "illuminate the reality of Castro's Cuba." The wider community around those affiliated with these government-supported groups make political contributions individually and through political action committees meant to support the hardline, pro-embargo status-quo. Part of the strategy is preventing other Americans from traveling to Cuba to see for themselves what's happening there. In "illuminating the reality of Castro's Cuba," they have skillfully perpetuated certain misconceptions about Cuba and, in McCarthy-era style, made any positive discussion of the island and its achievements during Castro's tenure taboo. And when momentum to lift the travel ban built in Congress, hardliners got Bush to enact regulatory changes in 2004 that cut 90% of travel to the island, eviscerating the lobbying effort emanating from those businesses and institutions facilitating such travel.


The pro-embargo forces say Cuba is a "terrorist" state. Long before 9/11, all during the 1990s, pro-embargo forces froze a cascade of legislative efforts to modernize our Cuba policy with terrorist allegations absent factual backing. Former U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli (a New Jersey Democrat who left his seat in disgrace) masterfully used this tactic to prevent food and medicine sales, which were banned despite violating all international humanitarian norms under his 1992 Cuban Democracy Act (CDA).

Just as former President Jimmy Carter landed in Havana, the Bush administration loudly accused Cuba of developing bio-weapons in an obvious effort to dilute media coverage of the Carter visit. Carter was blindsided, saying that in months of briefings just prior to the trip, U.S. authorities had not mentioned any such concerns

If anything, Cuba has been the victim of terrorism to which the U.S. government continues to turn a blind eye. This has undermining our credibility worldwide. In 1976, a Cubana airliner carrying the Cuban Olympic fencing team and others was blown up. Fugitives currently still protected here in the United States, including Luis Posada Carriles, took credit what was then the worst terrorist act of its time. Other acts of violence against Cuba, backed directly or indirectly by the United States, are numerous and well-documented, though one is hard-pressed to find evidence of Cuba using such tactics against our nation.

It has been troubling to watch our own democratic processes cast aside on behalf of the pro-embargo special interests. Former Rep. Tom "The Hammer" DeLay (R-TX), (another reliable embargo supporter later disgraced), violated all legislative norms to cut language easing the embargo, approved by both houses, from final legislation. Lawmakers such as Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) decried this unabashed breech of process, pointing to the irony of seeking "democracy" in Cuba while ignoring the voice of the people here at home.


Pro-embargo forces say Cuba is an economic mess, but according to the Economist Intelligence Unit and authorities such as the United Nations Economic Commission on Latin America (ECLAC), Cuba has been steadily climbing out of the deep economic depression spurred by the total pullout of their Soviet partners in 1990. China is now the largest foreign investor in Cuba. Companies from countries such as Canada, Spain, and Brazil are buying up exploration rights to Cuba's Gulf Coast waters where industry experts are confident significant oil deposits will be found.

With the help of economic experts such as Vice President Carlos Lage, London School of Economics-trained Central Bank President Francisco Soberon, and other Cubans regularly dealing with professionals worldwide, Cuba has been diversifying its economy, opening up to foreign investment and enjoying some of the highest GDP growth rates in the hemisphere. Problems are still deep, but on the whole experts such as former World Bank chief James Wolfensohn agree that Cuba has fared better than many countries that have gotten assistance from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other multilateral assistance over the years. The United States blocks Cuba's participation in these development programs and other international financial institutions even though Cuba is a founding member of the World Trade Organization.

The pro-embargo hardliners say Cuba is one of the world's worst human rights abusers and compare Fidel Castro to Adolph Hitler. It's true that freedoms of the press and assembly, for instance, are hampered in Cuba. Yet Cuba claims U.S. policy constitutes an act of war that prevents more openness. Human Rights Watch and other such groups have called for the embargo's end for this reason. In terms of worldwide perception, however, the worst human rights abuses in Cuba these days are occurring in the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

While individual freedoms may suffer in Cuba, the so-called collective human rights to shelter, to healthcare, to education, are enshrined by the Revolution. The Cuban people enjoy a literacy rate that rivals the United States and a free education through the university level. Cuba has in fact surpassed the United States in some basic health indicators through guaranteed health care for all based on sound principles of prevention and basic public health.


Healthcare is in fact Castro's most treasured legacy. Cuba has gained worldwide goodwill by bringing basic healthcare to poor people around the world. Cuba offered the United States over 1,000 doctors trained in disaster management the first hours following the Katrina disaster. The offer went unrecognized. About a week later that same medical brigade was dispatched to assist Pakistan in the wake of a devastating earthquake. Cuba provided the largest number of doctors of any country there, building an enduring friendship and sympathy about US bullying among the Pakistani people.

The special interest hardliners pushed the Bush Administration to half-heartedly announce incentives to lure these Cuban doctors away from their far-flung posts with promises of free assistance to get to the United States and guaranteed green cards. While so far there has been no discernable response to this effort, it would be natural for a few of the 29,000 Cuban medical personnel abroad to accept. These few would then be paraded around for everyone as evidence of how unhappy the Cuban doctors are.

Havana now has the largest medical school in the world, where students from poor areas who could never pay for a medical education are receiving their degrees and training in Cuba in exchange for their personal commitment to practice in medically underserved areas anywhere in the world. Some 90 U.S. students are taking advantage of these full scholarships in order to return to areas where doctors are sorely needed, such as the impoverished Mississippi Delta region. Hardliners tried to have these students sent home in 2004 when basically all the educational travel to Cuba was cut, but Colin Powell interceded and gave them a special exception to stay, for the time being.

Unlike most Americans, these students have been given the opportunity to live in Cuba, to experience it, warts and all, and arrive at their own conclusions about it. That's a freedom we all have a right to exercise, but for the machinations of those who would rather keep us "illuminated" on their own terms. The Cuban people have a right and deserve an opportunity to participate in the evolution of their country without the corrupting influence of outside interests. It's time to cut the government subsidies that keep the "embargo industry" spinning its tales, to amputate the tail that wags the dog.

About the Author: Lissa Weinmann, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. She's traveled to Cuba many times, directed the annual National Summit on Cuba from 2001 to 2006 and sits on the Board of Directors of the U.S.-Cuba Trade Association.

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