Transition in Cuba: Terms of Change

In this, the second of two articles, Holly Ackerman criticizes the Helms-Burton law and the equivalent Cuban legislation. Over the past 30 years, Castro has successfully defied the American government using techniques such as mass emigration to control dissent. Now, his options may be fewer: will international and internal pressure bring change to Cuba?

By Holly Ackerman | 1997-03-01 12:00:00

John Kennedy is credited with saying, "In politics, where there's smoke, there just may be a smoke machine." Cuba is a case in point. Although the Cold War has ended, Cold War thinking on Cuba still billows like an August bonfire. In the United States, the anachronistic stance is braced by the Helms-Burton Law (officially the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Law) signed in March 1996. Meanwhile, from Havana, the rhetoric of national liberation and socialism sallies forth like El Cid-a dead champion used to battle all manner of actions critical of the Castro regime. The latest Cuban prop is the Anti-Helms-Burton Law (officially the Reaffirmation Law of Cuban Dignity and Sovereignty), passed unanimously by the National Assembly of Popular Power on Christmas Eve of 1996.

Complex objectives are screened by both of these ideological smoke machines. An intricate path of money, political pluralism and spite is obscured by the fog of anti-communist rhetoric in Helms-Burton. In turn, the Cuban law clouds continued prerogatives of personal power and new tools for repressing dissent. This article first looks at phenomena that have complicated relations between the U.S. and Cuba since 1978 and relates them to some less-discussed aspects of the continuing tit-for-tat dynamic. Finally, it looks at future scenarios based on a reading of the statutory fine print in both Helms-Burton law and its Cuban response.

Responsibility for the American position on Cuba is an incumbent's nightmare since it is entangled not only in traditional foreign policy concerns-national security and trade-but also in contentious domestic issues such as public attitudes toward immigration and block voting by ethnic enclaves. This is what political scientists call an "intermestic" problem-a mix of interacting domestic and foreign policy issues that makes control, simplicity and political hay hard to come by. In this kind of situation politicians can be pulled from all sides, satisfying no one. It's what makes a smoke machine look like a good investment.

Constituencies and Cuba Policy

Two key American constituencies have been involved in setting Cuba policy over the last 37 years since the triumph of the Cuban insurrection. The first is made up of organized, naturalized Cuban-American exiles in South Florida. Collectively the exiles have come to be key players in presidential and congressional politics through control of Florida's electoral votes and by continuous re-election of a small, but increasingly well-connected, congressional delegation. Right-wing groups have predominated, especially in the early years and in media coverage, with the Cuban American National Foundation receiving the most attention. The second, and less discussed group, comprises approximately 25 large corporations (including ITT, Colgate-Palmolive, United Fruit, Texaco and Coca Cola) that hold 72% of all U.S. certified claims against the revolutionary government for seized properties (certified claims are those made prior to May 1, 1967, and approved after examination by The Foreign Claims Settlement Commission).

After the 1962 missile crisis pledge to abstain from invasion of Cuba, several American administrations found that juggling the Cuban situation was relatively easy despite its intermestic character. The exiles were a geographically contained, single- issue group (the one issue being an end to the Castro regime) whose interests were compatible with those of corporations with confiscated property. The U.S. simply took an "ain't it awful" position in relation to the exiles' pleas, maintained the 1961 economic embargo, granted corporations with confiscated properties about $3 billion in special tax relief, and continued to offer preferential immigration status to those who escaped the island. That formula kept things quiet for about 16 years. Since then, issues and opinions have diversified and, by 1994, the complexity was as dense as Cuban custard.

The major ingredients that thickened the mix were: steadily increasing and acknowledged contact between the exile and island populations since 1978; President Castro's deft use of migration crises as a nonviolent weapon in 1965, 1980 and 1994; opening of the Cuban economy to foreign investment under tight control since the dissolution of the USSR; and vigorous resurgence of political parties and civic groups both on the island and in Miami.

The Dialogue and Its Consequences

In August 1977, as part of an overall commitment to human rights and in an effort to improve bilateral relations, Jimmy Carter authorized Bernardo Benes, a prominent Miami banker, to follow up on an overture made to Benes by the Cuban government to negotiate release of prominent political prisoners. Benes subsequently met secretly more than a dozen times with President Castro and his representatives. In 1978, the product of those meetings was revealed in el diálogo (the dialogue)-a historic meeting between Fidel Castro and prominent exile intellectuals returning for the first time. The upshot of both the dialogue and secret diplomacy was the opening of exile travel to the island, authorization of exile remittance to relatives via the Cuban government, and release into exile of 3,600 former Cuban political prisoners. The infusion of hard currency took pressure off the Cuban government and enraged right- wing exiles. The drama of the exiles' return and direct negotiation with Castro made huge emotional ripples within the exile and the island populations.

In Miami, the immediate political price was that Benes became a pariah and had to withdraw from public life. Benes' bank and the homes of some dialogueros were bombed by right-wing elements. For the hard-liners, dealing with Castro was akin to a victims' support group offering to bankroll O.J. Simpson. In the long term, most exiles voted with their feet and chequebooks, making hundreds of thousands of return visits in the next decade and sending millions of dollars annually. It is the violent right-wing reaction during this period that has been used to characterize the entire exile. Those Cubans who were terrorized, the ones who gained their freedom through the dialogue, and those who have peacefully visited their Cuban relatives for years marvel at the distortion.

Inside Cuba, the return visits represented the first mass contact with accounts about life in the U.S. The demand for emigration soared. In 1965, under similar pressure, Castro had opened the port of Camarioca to permit exiles to pick up "anti-social" relatives. This pattern repeated itself in 1980 when asylum seekers made hundreds of "break-ins" at foreign embassies. In a spectacular incident at the beginning of April, 10,800 asylum seekers packed the grounds of the Peruvian embassy in Havana after Castro withdrew the guards stationed there. When the would-be emigrants refused to leave, Castro responded by opening the port of Mariel and invited exiles to pick up the malcontents. Eventually 125,000 people left through Mariel, although the Cuban government acknowledges that at least twice that number had registered to participate in the boat lift.

Following the Mariel incident, U.S. presidential advisors declared that future migration surges had to be met with a firm policy of no admission regardless of the possible consequences in Miami. They reasoned that Castro was using migration crises as an escape valve to reduce and control popular discontent and as a way of forcing the U.S. to the bargaining table on migration issues. By accepting the "early risers" who might try to change the regime, the U.S. was siphoning off the development of independent social and political groups in Cuba and creating chaos in south Florida.

Bill Clinton was faced with the third mass migration in the summer of 1994 when the first substantial street riots broke out in Havana. A major impetus to the protest was the Cuban government's sinking of a boat (the El Trece de Marzo) loaded with 72 persons headed for Miami.

Forty-two of the adults and children on board died when they were swept into the sea by water cannons. The survivors were jailed for illegal exit (in Cuba it is a criminal offence to try to leave the country without government permission). In response to the riots, Castro temporarily suspended arrest for illegal exit and invited those who were discontented to set sail for Miami. The U.S. launched its largest Coast Guard operation since World War II to rescue the tens of thousands who set out in anything that would float. The rafters were denied entry to the U.S. and taken to camps at Guantanamo Naval Base. Over the next year and a half the rafters were gradually released into the U.S. on humanitarian grounds. By January of 1996 the camps were empty. In the interim, the U.S. had negotiated an agreement with the Cuban government to repatriate all future rafters picked up at sea. During good weather, hundreds are now routinely, involuntarily repatriated each month by the U.S. Coast Guard through the port of Cabañas.

Overall, this last round of exit was bad news for Fidel Castro. The escape valve scenario had worked in 1965 and 1980, allowing Castro to reduce domestic tension through mass exit and to demonize the exiles and the United States even as he forced them to the bargaining table in order to end the mass exodus. In 1994, the exile community accepted Clinton's initial refusal to take more refugees. When Castro exhorted them to come and pick their relatives out of the water, boats in South Florida stayed in port as ordered by the U.S. Coast Guard. What's more, right-wing exile leaders were consulted by the White House before the Clinton policy change was announced and they agreed to it.

Cuba without Exit: Fewer Options, More Action

The end to exodus has helped produce similar results both on the island and in exile-diverse, independent social and political organizing has blossomed. In their 1995 annual report to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, the Christian Democratic Party of Cuba (headquartered in Miami) listed 300 independent dissident groups in Cuba. The most extensive and best known of these was a coalition called Concilio Cubano. Formed in October 1995, Concilio brought together over 100 political, humanitarian, union and professional groups that agreed on five points:

The leaders of Concilio were closely watched and sometimes jailed by their government. Despite harassment, they petitioned the government to permit a plenary meeting of the group on February 24, 1996-a national holiday commemorating the start of the independence struggle declared at the 1895 Grito de Baire.

A parallel movement took place between 1994 and 1996 in Miami. The end to special migratory status made Cubans in the U.S. shed some illusions about their ability to care for friends and relatives. Nonviolent action strategies became the modus vivendi. Several exile organizations adopted Cuban counterparts, setting up telephone networks, re-broadcasting their declarations so they could be heard widely in Cuba, supplying them with fax machines and office supplies, and notifying the international media when leaders were arrested. A series of democracy flotillas sailed to the twelve-mile limit off Cuba to demonstrate solidarity with the island population. A coordinated support group for Concilio Cubano was created in Miami with many predicting that a major citizen protest might occur on February 24, 1996.

Then, on the very tense and historically significant day that Concilio had planned to meet, the Cuban government shot down two Cessna planes piloted by members of Hermanos al Rescate. (Brothers to the Rescue is a group that flies over the Straits of Florida searching for Cuban rafters, and has dropped pamphlets on the Cuban mainland. Between mid-1991 and 1994, Hermanos is credited by the U.S. Coast Guard with saving over 4000 lives.) Contrary to Cuban claims that the two passenger planes were intending to invade Cuba, subsequent international tribunals have established that the planes were unarmed and in international waters. Hermanos claims to have been on a routine mission looking for rafters.

Precipitous or Precipitated? The passing of Helms-Burton

Clinton's response to the attack was to end commercial flights and remittances and to do what he had previously refused to do-sign the Helms-Burton Act into law. One has to wonder both at the motives of the attack and at the seemingly restrained reaction of the Clinton administration. I argue that Castro made a preemptive strike to signal to all political opponents, in Cuba and elsewhere, that he was prepared to use force to remain in power. Clinton, on the other hand, chose to cede partial control of future events to Congress. This helped his immediate personal goals for re-election by placating the right-wing exile groups but damaged the presidency by ceding leadership on foreign policy, alienated allies, and made a hopeless muddle of future relations with Cuba.

Viewed in terms of the domestic half of the intermestic tarbaby, Helms-Burton simultaneously curries favor with the exile Right and protects Clinton and his presidential successors from the resulting flak. Helms-Burton sticks the U.S. Congress with the tough decisions. For example, through joint resolution, the Senate and House can now overrule a presidential cancellation of the trade embargo; the President cannot recognize any transitional government that includes Fidel or Raul Castro; nor can he/she recognize any government that has not made "demonstrable progress toward returning...or providing full compensation" for U.S. certified claims for confiscated properties.

I Smell Smoke!! The Major Provisions of Helms-Burton

This brings us back to the right-wing exile constituency and those 25 international corporations I mentioned at the beginning. After all the smoke clears, Helms-Burton boils down to a laundry list of the presumed sins of the Castro brothers, together with a list of goodies that will be offered if and when a suitable transitional government and, later, a democratically elected government is in place. The criteria for the awarding of such goodies are right-wing. The less discussed item is the strict maintenance of selected corporate interests in Cuba despite the embargo. Title III of the law (the most controversial and least understood section, inaccurately entitled "Protection of Property Rights of United States Nationals") primarily reasserts and updates the context of claims of large, multinational firms and a few wealthy Cubans that were approved by the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission (FCSC) in the early 70s. The law's only innovation is to extend sanctions to include foreign firms who purchase formerly corporate-owned properties. But make no mistake, we're not talking about everybody in Miami getting his/her bungalow back. By properties the law defines non-residential real estate valued above $50,000 in 1959, patents, copyrights, trademarks and any other form of intellectual property. Residential property counts only if it was claimed prior to May 1967, valued above $50,000 and certified by the FCSC, or is currently occupied by a member of the ruling inner circle. Few ordinary Cubans owned properties of that value in 1959, nor did they have the immigration status that would have given them standing to bring such an action in 1967.

Quick cross reference to the Congressional Record from the period reveals that only 616 individually-owned and 14 church-owned properties qualify. T e rest (an aggregate of over $1.3 billion in 1959 dollars plus 6% interest for 37 years for a total of about $6 billion today) belong to the previously mentioned multinationals and a sprinkling of super-rich Cubans. To date the corporations have received about $3 billion in tax breaks as compensation. In addition, ITT-the largest single claimant-got special permission in the mid-70s to jump the embargo and bid on communications contracts with Cuba. You might think it was unnecessary to enact such punitive and grandiose legislative measures in light of these compensations, particularly since the original claims have not been dismissed.

Alas, smoke is in the eyes of many exiles and most of the media. Exiles have been led to believe that Helms-Burton is somehow going to result in the return of their mom-and-pop businesses, homes or farms. They will get nothing. A bitter disappointment awaits even those 6,000 who have approved claims valued under $50,000. This deception is the tragedy of Helms-Burton and ultimately will widen the confidence gap between the American government and the grassroots of the exile community.

Media debate has focused either on the arrogance and inconsistency of Congress in mounting a secondary boycott while arguing for free trade and regional trade partnerships, or on the complete disregard for traditions of sovereignty in international law and the failure to consult allies before taking unilateral actions that affect them adversely. While accurate, those assessments miss the dynamic of the political bottom line. The reality is that the traditional constituents have been rewarded and the whole mess has been dumped in the lap of a famously ahistorical Congress. By signing the legislation, Clinton missed an opportunity to build on the political moderation that has developed within the exile community.

If it Plays in Miami, Why Not in Havana?

The net effect is to lend credibility to Castro's claims that the exiles are coming to put everyone out on the street, which in turn dampens the expression of popular dissent, increases the isolation of those who dare to dissent, and is used to justify repression. It also reduces the likelihood that reformers within the Cuban government will act. The chances of a violent transition are increased by the blaming and finger pointing that accompanies each section of the law.

The anti-Helms-Burton legislation also has a list of gripes worthy of the First Wives' Club. It makes general provisions for Cuban citizens and mass organizations to claim damages for exploitation prior to 1959 by U.S. businesses. It even blames the U.S. for all acts of violence and repression committed by the Batista government (Batista was the dictator overthrown in 1959) since his government was a major recipient of U.S. aid. These too can be brought forward for compensation rulings, as can the costs of U.S. sabotage since 1959. At the same time, the Helms-Burton Law is declared null and void. Any U.S. citizen who files claims under Helms-Burton will be denied participation in future negotiations with Cuba.

The legislation also includes: an offer to negotiate with the U.S. by putting the value of confiscated properties on the bargaining table alongside the cost to Cuba of the U.S. embargo; a plan to protect the corporate identity of secret investors in Cuba, to circumvent the Yankis; and a similar offer to all exiles to open anonymous bank accounts in Cuba for the use of relatives and friends on the island.

The most significant portion of the law is also the least obvious. Behind the smoke of anti-American rhetoric, the incipient free press in Cuba is criminalized. Anti-Helms-Burton makes it illegal to "collaborate with any media organization in a way that facilitates the intent of the Helms-Burton Law." Further, Cuban citizens are liable to arrest if they "cooperate in any way" with Helms-Burton, including receiving direct or indirect help from the U.S. government or helping someone else who receives such help. So, if I'm a scholar with a fellowship from the U.S. government and I take a fax machine to Cuba and give it to a friend, and the friend faxes back a report on brutality in Cuban prisons and I put the material on the radio she gets arrested and so does the person whose phone line she used. This is how the recently created independent news services in Cuba have worked and they are the immediate target of the law.

Although the Miami recipients are portrayed by Castro as CIA agents, they are more often ordinary Cuban-Americans seeking contacts with their roots. For example, the independent economists' group in Cuba publishes a newsletter thanks to the work of two people, a graduate student at the University of Miami, Juan Carlos Espinosa, and a retired economist, Alnunfo Carrandi. The independent press agencies often contact individuals like Omar Galloso, a 1980 exile who is part of a small collective operating an Internet bulletin board called Cubanet. Cubanet posts articles from independent journalists and other daily items on Cuba. (Their work can be read by subscribing to or on the Web at ~cubanet.) Others call human rights activists who then contact the media. Whoever the contact is in Miami, she writes down the text and gives it to radio stations, Internet discussion groups, etc. It is then rebroadcast to Cuba as well as North America. So Cubans receive their independent press through what has been called a media boomerang. Most of the independent journalists have been fired from their jobs and have had their equipment-often just pencils and paper-confiscated by Cuban State Security. Lately, El Nuevo Herald (the Spanish language sister paper of the The Miami Herald) had begun printing the best of their releases and it was starting to look like they could become a viable entity. The new law sets the framework to convert them into the next generation of political prisoners instead.

What Next? Short Term Scenarios

Given the standoff of mutual name-calling and special interests, what is likely to happen? The leaders of a pacifist, on-island dissident group, the Cuban Democratic Project (CDP), recently issued a beautifully succinct declaration that presents a framework for analysis. "You can promote democracy in Cuba with the Cuban government or without the Cuban government, but never against the Cuban government."

A unilateral move to end to the U.S. embargo on medicine and food would be greeted with wide support among the centrist and left wings of the exile community and on the island. It could serve as a basis for the "with the government" approach. As the CDP points out, the U.S. has negotiated with Cuba when it serves American interests, and vice versa. The Clinton administration does have the option of limiting the embargo, without seeking Congressional approval to end it. This would open a "with the Cuban government" possibility related to the distribution of aid and could move towards gradual change.

Helms-Burton required the appointment of a special envoy to deal with Cuba policy. Clinton's appointee, Stuart Eizenstat, toured Miami, Mexico and Europe on a fact-gathering mission last spring. In Miami, he held three meetings-one with the exile Left, one with the Centre and one with the Right. Interestingly, when the meetings were being arranged, it took some calling around by Washington to discover who the left and centre leaders were. At the meetings, these groups urged an end to the embargo. Many Cuban-Americans who regularly visited relatives and/or supported them would support this position. But considering the preference of the U.S. government for promoting the right wing of the exile community, it is unlikely that a "with the government" scenario will unfold.

The "without the Cuban government" scenario offers more promise. It requires that the diversity of the Cuban nation be recognized. Both governments and NGOs must learn who the Cuban players are, track the range of Cuban opinion and credit the island groups with the ability to fashion their own solutions. In the past, President Castro and the American President have been the sole referents. Policy often consisted of simply kibitzing on their mutual antagonism. With the rise of an incipient civil society, there is greater choice. Supporting island groups in their struggle for rights of speech, travel and assembly will increase the likelihood of an accelerated process of democratization with less chance of violence. The European Union and several governments have made future aid to Cuba contingent upon gradual democratization. Monitoring the relative breathing space of alternative groups on the island is a critical element in gauging this progress.

The "against the Cuban government" scenario is the soul of Helms-Burton and simply updates the Platt Amendment. It protects a few multinational firms and gives Washington veto power over future Cuban political leaders. Arguably, the Cuban revolution has failed as both a material and ideological project but it has succeeded as an assertion of sovereignty. No amount of political smoke can obscure that fact in international circles, though it may work in the U.S. Fortunately, the very terms of Helms-Burton demand international action and reaction. In the end, it's a tail-wags-dog policy that may stimulate the very actions it seeks to avoid.

Holly Ackerman is a professor of social work and Latin American studies at Tulane University, New Orleans. She previously lived in southern Florida.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1997

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1997, page 8. Some rights reserved.

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