Cuba: Setting A Context

By John Kirk

The two recent articles on Cuba by Holly Ackerman, as well as the accompanying editorial, have provided a useful opportunity to reflect on the one area of the world where the Cold War is alive and well, the Washington-Havana axis. There is much of value in these pieces, but there are also examples of a fundamental misreading of contemporary Cuba. My greatest problem with the Ackerman pieces is that she does not fully outline the background conditions against which this drama is enacted.

Forty Years Of Hostility

The current tension between Washington and Havana is the result of an ongoing dynamic of hostility. For nearly 40 years the U.S has tried to overthrow the revolutionary government. It has organized dozens of assassination attempts on the Cuban president, supported an invasion (the Bay of Pigs fiasco of 1961), turned a blind eye to paramilitary groups in the United States that have engaged in acts of terrorism, and sought to bully U.S. allies into supporting a policy designed to create domestic pressure on the island such that people will rise up and overthrow the government. It is no exaggeration to see the bilateral relationship as one of undeclared war between Miami and Havana, with the U.S. national policy held hostage in between.

It was the United States that broke diplomatic relations with Cuba and has repeatedly sought to overthrow its government. From the "Trading with the Enemy Act" to the Helms-Burton Act, the overt goal of the U.S. government since 1960 has been to depose the revolutionary government. Bill Clinton is the ninth president vowing to set foot in a "free Cuba."

At first the justification for this policy was the role of Cuba as a "Soviet puppet." Later it was the objections to the Cuban presence in Angola and Cuba's aid for liberation movements in Central America. Now human rights abuses are being criticized. The goal posts have been moved during this period, but the objective remains the same: to overthrow the government of a neighboring country, using tactics that belong in a Schwarzenegger movie. Given this climate and the proximity of the self-proclaimed "enemy," it is difficult to expect Havana to look favorably on internal critics. This does not justify the government's actions, with which I disagree, but it does help to explain the Cuban position.

Selective Indignation

Yes, there are abuses of human rights in Cuba. Amnesty International claims that there are some 600 political prisoners in Cuba, while a special rapporteur of the U.N. estimates almost double that number. When abuses occur, in any country, they should be condemned. But it is also important not to get lost in a frenzy of selective indignation. There is a calculated focus on human rights abuses and the plight of dissidents in Cuba, while far worse situations elsewhere in Latin America are ignored. The 1995 annual report of Amnesty International reveals the disappearance (and presumed execution) of 4,200 government opponents in Peru, 1,500 in Columbia, and 300 in Mexico, statistics often ignored by those who condemn Cuba. This is an important point of comparison with Cuba, where extra-judicial executions and disappearances do not occur. The special rapporteur for Cuba of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Carl-Johan Groth noted recently that "To be a dissident in Cuba is as difficult and risky today as it has been at any time in recent years." He noted that 23 opposition members have been arrested or harassed, while others were pressured to leave the county under threats of prison sentences. While this is not acceptable, it is significantly different from the cases noted above.

Journalists who do not work for official state-run media are particularly harassed. In some cases they receive material support from U.S. agencies, but in many others are genuinely independent. Compare their situation with those of government opponents in other countries. The Inter-American Press Association recently denounced murders of journalists in several Latin American countries, especially Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala. The international Committee to Protect Journalists noted that 27 of their colleagues had been killed in 1996. Turkey was "once again the most egregious example of a government that criminalized independent reporting." There were 78 journalists jailed in Turkey in 1996, more than in the next five countries together: Ethiopia (18), China (11) Kuwait (15), Nigeria (8), and Burma (8). Seven journalists were killed in Algeria (where 59 have been killed since 1993), and six in Russia. The silence of those who condemn Cuba, but do not apply the same standards to their allies, is deafening.

The nub of Ackerman's argument is that Cuba's political culture is one of repression, while that of the exile groups "has incorporated gradual but significant changes through democratization." The image of Fidel Castro clinging tenaciously to power simply as a result of increased repression is wrong. In part this is because the opposition is abroad, having voted with its feet. But it is also an undeniable fact that, despite frustration with many facets of the revolutionary process, most Cubans are fearful of a massive Cuban-American presence, and are concerned about retaining the indisputable benefits that they receive from the government. Groth put it well in this recent report in Geneva: "The regime enjoys, in broad sectors of the population, a credibility and a margin of confidence far greater than observers have believed."

Cuban Nationalism

That the system is harsh and paternalistic, consistently bureaucratic and occasionally extremist is clear. But for most Cubans the alternative is perceived as worse. Moreover, the nationalism that exists on the island is so strong that Cubans will resist any U.S. attempts to limit their sovereignty. After extremely difficult conditions in the 1990-93 period, things are definitely improving in Cuba. (Ironically, the fruits of a mixed economy are being used to assure the survival of the socialist system.) Most Cubans, despite their grumbling, would not countenance changes of the type desired by most of the opponents to the Cuban system in Miami.

Miami not so virtuous

I also have trouble imagining Miami as an area of sweeping democratization. One should remember the report a few years ago, published by Americas Watch, significantly the only one it has published on human rights abuses in the United States. It condemned the tactics of intimidation and harassment of anyone in Miami who sought a policy of dialogue with the Castro government. Bombs were planted, opponents killed, and reputations destroyed.

Ackerman would have us believe that things have changed drastically. I wonder. Early in March of 1997 Andy Montañez, a Puerto Rican salsa singer was banned from performing in the Festival de la Calle 8, in the heart of Miami's Cuban district. He had been invited to sing and had a contract to do so. Two weeks earlier he had welcomed Cuban singer Silvio Rodriguez to Puerto Rico, and had given him an embrace on stage. For the festival organizers back in Little Havana this was too much and he was asked not to come. In an editorial published in the Miami Herald on March 13, Lisa Versaci, a local arts coordinator, wrote, "We're living in a city where intimidation, whether real or perceived, has the same chilling effect."

Ackerman does not pay enough attention to the dynamic of hostility, wrapped in a "take no prisoners" approach (found both sides of the Florida straits) and cloaked in rabid anti-Castroism that exists in Miami. Ninoska Pérez Castellón, a radio personality and spokeswoman for the conservative Cuban-American National Foundation, phones government offices in Cuba and interviews unsuspecting functionaries, seeking to embarrass them. Some of these calls are later played on the air. In March, she tracked down the Foreign Minister in Brazil at the residence of the Cuban ambassador. When she got the Minister on the phone, she berated him. "I'm calling to show that I'm capable of bringing you to the phone. That you are a clown, and to tell you to put an end to repression in Cuba."

In March, the Miami Herald reported on the "Democracy Movement," an exile group planning to send a flotilla of Cuban-Americans to land on Cuban beaches during the visit of Pope John Paul II in January 1998. Their objective is to rally Cubans to participate in a massive protest against the government, and to install the group's headquarters in Havana. Both the protest plan and Castellón's techniques illustrate the frustration of the Cuban-American opposition to the Castro government and provocative, impassioned strategies that do not contribute to a balanced approach to the Cuba question.

It is against this background of provocation and hostility, intolerance and frustration, that Holly Ackerman should set her pieces. Some of her analysis is solid but she needs to distance herself from the Miami perspective. Note that she did her Ph.D. at the University of Miami, and was an adjunct professor at Florida International University.

As is the case with so many aspects of contemporary Cuba, transformation depends on what happens 90 miles away. How can the Cuban government implement political change knowing that Washington will seek to take advantage of any changes? For those who doubt this assertion, it is instructive to reflect upon the historical record. One has only to look at the history of U.S. policy: the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala (1954) and Allende in Chile (1973); the "mediation" in the Dominican Republic (1965); the funding of the contras in Nicaragua; and the invasions of Grenada and Panama. There is no doubt Washington will exploit any sign of weakness.

Dialogue the Prescription for the Washington-Havana Axis

The only way to deal with the current standoff is to support the efforts of those who seek dialogue between Cuba and the U.S. Certainly this is what the international community desires, as was seen in last November's 137-3 vote at the U.N. General Assembly denouncing the U.S. embargo of Cuba. If the U.S. really were interested in promoting human rights in Cuba it would pursue a policy of negotiation, such as it does with China, a country that possesses a human rights situation far worse than that of Cuba. Yet Washington-and the powerful Cuban-American National Foundation-prefers confrontation to dialogue.

Ackerman is quite right in her analysis of the Helms-Burton legislation, designed to benefit only the Cuban exiles with property valued at over $50,000 in 1959. She also is correct that the "antidote" legislation in Cuba has only tightened the government's position on dissidence, which was to be expected. What she needs to do is go one step beyond and show that the Helms-Burton legislation in particular, and U.S. policy in general, have failed miserably.

It is through a policy of dialogue and engagement that Cuba will change. There are many principal stakeholders in this process, among whom the most important are the Cuban people themselves, whose opinions are so often overlooked and misinterpreted by U.S. policy-makers. The evolution of the domestic economic scene in the last three years has been extraordinary. Yet Washington-and Cuban-Americans- need to know that there will be no political liberalization in Cuba until the tension is reduced. The climate of hostility and intimidation stemming from Miami will only be met by harshness and retaliation in Havana, which of course benefits nobody but the hard-liners on both sides of the ideological divide. It is time to see common sense and political leadership in Washington: the whole world is waiting.

John M. Kirk is Professor and Chair of Spanish at Dalhousie University.

Peace Magazine May-June 1997

Peace Magazine May-June 1997, page 10. Some rights reserved.

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