The controversy surrounding a visa granted recently by the Obama administration to Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuba’s military dictator, Gen. Raúl Castro, has now involved me. I wish to set the record straight about the Mariela Castro visa before false allegations morph into another urban legend.
Last week, a local Democratic Party spokesman, Freddy Balsera, while attempting to defend the administration’s decision, stated on a popular local Spanish-language TV interview program, A Mano Limpia, that Castro’s first visits to the United States, in 2001 and 2002, “were authorized by the assistant secretary of State for the Western hemisphere at the time, Otto Reich.”
That is not true.
I know Balsera and consider him an honorable man. I do not believe he is lying; I assume he simply does not know the facts. Balsera was only doing his job of defending the indefensible: Mariela Castro, in her current capacity of propagandist for the Castro dictatorship should never have been granted a visa by the Obama administration. What the Obama spokesmen are trying to do now is to shift attention from their mistake by pointing to the alleged errors of the previous administration. Let me review the actual record:
On October 4, 1985, President Ronald Reagan issued Presidential Proclamation 5377, which prohibited the entry to the United States “by officers or employees of the government of Cuba or the Communist Party of Cuba.” This policy remained in effect until 1999, when President Bill Clinton modified it to allow U.S. visas to Cuban officials below the rank of vice minister. Clinton further revised the approval process by reducing the rank of the U.S. officials authorized to grant such visas. Whereas, before, high-ranking officials (assistant or deputy assistant secretary) were required to approve Cuban visas, thereafter the authority was reduced to the level of (country) desk officer and equivalent.
The Clinton administration’s objective was to “depoliticize” the Cuba visa approval process. It was that policy that was in place in 2001 and early 2002 when Mariela Castro was granted visas to visit the United States in her private capacity as an alleged expert in the field of sex therapy. Castro had no official government position and therefore did not qualify for denial (nor did she attract or receive any public attention).
The Bush administration, however, was determined to change the Clinton policy of passivity towards Cuba. But President Bush’s nominee for assistant secretary of State, this author, was denied a confirmation hearing for the entire first year of the administration. Sen. Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, a notorious apologist for the Castro dictatorship, blocked my hearing, purposely delaying the president’s hemispheric policy review. President Bush was able to bypass Dodd’s obstructionism by granting me a “recess appointment,” as authorized by the Constitution, on Jan 11, 2002.
The preceding timetable shows that I had nothing to do with the granting of the visas to Ms. Castro since I was either not in office (2001) or in the chain of command for the decision (2002). Nevertheless, since I was in office in 2002, I assume responsibility for the second visa, if it was ever issued (there are questions as to whether Mariela ever came to the United States in 2002). I should have been informed and should have stopped it.
As soon as I was sworn in, however, and following President Bush’s direction, I proceeded to review all hemispheric policy, and to make the necessary changes in direction. Anyone familiar with the immense State Department bureaucracy knows that changes are not accomplished overnight.
Moreover, Cuba was not the only country of concern for the Bush administration: Argentina was suffering its worst fiscal crisis in decades; the Colombian state was in danger of failing due to battling narco-traffickers, illicit armies and Marxist guerrillas; Hugo Chávez continued to undermine democracy in Venezuela and to finance subversion in neighboring countries; most of the hemisphere was in bad shape. We worked no less than 12 hours a day to fight these challenges.
It is important to note that subsequent to that 2002 policy review, and some attendant personnel changes, no further visas were granted to Mariela Castro or any other spokesperson of the Castro government by the Bush administration.
Among the personnel changes was the replacement of the Chief of Mission of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. We sent a first-rate officer, Jim Cason (today the mayor of Coral Gables) who, with his intelligent and courageous advocacy of U.S. policy, quickly incurred the wrath of Fidel Castro. I also appointed another outstanding young Foreign Service officer as director of Cuban Affairs. There is a saying in government circles: “Personnel is policy.” The people who implement the president’s orders have enormous influence on the policy’s effectiveness.
Regardless of what happened 10 years ago, it was a gross error by the Obama administration to grant Mariela Castro a visa now, especially while an American citizen, Alan Gross, languishes in a Cuban jail under trumped-up charges. At the very least, Washington should immediately cease granting visas to any Cuban in any way associated with the dictatorship until Gross is free and reunited with his family in the United States.
Otto J. Reich is a private consultant in Washington who has worked in various capacities for three U.S. presidents.