On Friday, Secretary John Kerry opens up the new U.S. Embassy in Havana. Unfortunately, he shares many of the misconceptions advanced by former Secretary Hillary Clinton at her recent speech at Florida International University.
Her incursion into the debate on U.S. Cuba policy could have been a “teachable moment” had she been mindful of her academic audience and the danger of ignoring the facts when trying to justify an abrupt reversal of U.S. foreign policy. Instead she delivered another polemic on lifting what remains of the U.S. embargo.
Cubans, Clinton said, “want to buy our goods, read our books.” Yes, they do, and for 10 years now Havana has bought annually hundreds of millions of dollars of American foodstuffs on a cash-and-carry basis. As a former chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, I can attest that over the years, we distributed several hundred thousand copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and tens of thousands of books in an effort to break the iron censorship imposed by Castro’s communist regime.
Promoting freedom just as we did in Eastern Europe, our efforts included shortwave radio broadcasts and distributing thousands of radio receivers.
The White House stood firmly behind American diplomats in Cuba. It did not yield even when the regime expelled a foreign-service officer for giving away copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Orwell’s book was published years before Cuba’s Revolution, and is a quintessential depiction of totalitarianism. Cubans readily grasp the context and, ironically, it was President Bill Clinton who initiated grants to American NGOs to buy and distribute books and radios in the island. President George W. Bush continued the initiative.
What would be “new” in the 21st Century would be for Raúl Castro to repeal his book bans and cease his censorship, harassment, and imprisonment of writers, broadcasters, readers, and listeners. Little will change until the regime “normalizes” its relationship with its own people by respecting human rights and earning their consent to be governed by holding free elections.
More tourists won’t change Cuba. Millions of Spanish-speaking tourists have visited Cuba and brought no change; neither will English-speaking American tourists. In all my years in the Foreign Service, tourists never became a major source of support for people struggling to attain freedom. If tourists did have such influence, there would not have been so many 20th-century Latin American dictators.
The administration’s “new” Cuba policy is a reversion to earlier eras — before adoption of the Democratic Charter by the Organization of American States — when the United States routinely sided with the region’s dictators.
“Engagement” does not require acquiescing to dictators, and the issue today is not “engagement” versus “no engagement.” The issue is: What kind of engagement? Sadly, the administration has made numerous concessions to Havana with no quid, pro quo in return.
In her speech, Clinton noted that President Bill Clinton ended his efforts to “normalize” relations with Cuba when Raúl Castro’s MiGs destroyed two small Cessnas flying in international airspace. Four men, who were searching for refugees adrift in the Florida Straits, were killed. At the time General Castro was Minister of the Armed Forces.
Mrs. Clinton suggested in her FIU speech that companies doing business in Cuba will push for political reforms. Companies now doing business in Cuba haven’t and don’t. American companies doing business in China, Burma, and other totalitarian states typically become apologists for the regimes — lest helping the victims of repression negatively impact their businesses.
What is really needed is for the world’s democracies to condition their economic and political engagement with Cuba to specific internal reforms. That, would be a real new policy.
James Cason is mayor of Coral Gables and former ambassador to Paraguay. From 2002-2005, he served as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.