Waiting on Fidel

As the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s revolution nears, there’s an anxious wait on both sides of the Florida Straits for both President Bush and Cuba’s longstanding leader to leave the world stage.

A gravely ill Castro and Bush’s final days in office has given both virulently anti-Castro exiles and business interests and other embargo foes hope that change may come after decades of hostility and estrangement.

To justify his hard line toward the island, Bush plunged Mirta Pernet, a 65-year old grandmother who had left her life in Cuba just weeks before, into the United State’s contentious battle with Havana.

Pernet, who emigrated to Miami with her granddaughter Damaris Garcia, is the sister of a jailed Cuban dissident. She and other family members of dissidents were flown to Washington in October to listen to Bush tell the world in a speech at the State Department to expect no response from Washington to the final days of Fidel Castro’s life.

“Damaris calls the Cuban government ‘a killing machine,’” Bush said.

The president also called Cuba a “tropical gulag” and suggested foreign governments (most of whom reject U.S. policy toward Cuba)develop an international “Freedom Fund” to subvert the Cuban Revolution.

Although unaccustomed to the limelight, Pernet said she hoped her appearance with Bush would publicize her brother’s plight. Omar Pernet Hernandez, a librarian convicted of subversive activities, is serving a 25-year jail sentence. “I’d do anything to help him,” Mirta Pernet said.Damaris Garcia said she was thrilled Bush “is interested in the situation of the Cuban people.”

Shifting U.S. policy toward Cuba to the right helped Bush win the political support of key segments of the exile community, but he’s likely to be the 10th U.S. president to leave office without even denting the Cuban Revolution.

Bush’s decision to base his policy toward Cuba on support of fostering dissent on the island is said to reflect a genuine desire to fight tyranny and help the oppressed. But it’s called misguided and counterproductive to U.S. interests by American businesses and a growing number of Cuban Americans whose ability to help and visit family on the island has been hurt by Bush’s hard line.

There once was an expectation that Bush would continue President Clinton’s policy of measured responses to the Cuban government’s behavior and increased contacts between Americans and Cubans.

But those hoping for a change in policy are now looking towards November, when voters elect someone new to the White House who might take a different tact.

Unwillingness by Washington to engage the Cuban government, especially since a seriously ill Fidel Castro ceded power to his younger brother Raul nearly two years ago, is seen by administration critics as a missed chance to prod Cuba toward change.

Bush’s tough speech was also a sign his administration rejected Raul Castro’s announced willingness to implement “structural and conceptual changes.”

Anti-Castro exiles sighed with relief that Washington rejected Raul’s ascendency as a true transition of power in Cuba. But others saw a missed opportunity for the U.S. to press for change.

“This could have been a great opportunity. Your enemy is falling apart. You could force change,” said Joe Garcia, former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation.

Modeled after the powerful Israel lobby, the Cuban American National Foundation was created in 1981 by firebrand Jorge Mas Canosa to topple Fidel Castro’s government. With the help of generous political donations, Mas Canosa made sure the embargo did not crack.

Washington imposed the embargo in stages in the early 1960s in response to Cuban expropriations of American-owned properties. Its impact on Cuba’s economy was blunted by Soviet aid. After the Soviet Union fell, CANF won congressional approval for legislation that would tighten the embargo.

The legislation stripped the president of much of his authority over the embargo and set strict requirements for resumption of normal trade and diplomatic relations. One requirement is that Raul Castro cannot be part of a transitional government.

A few years after Mas Canosa died in 1997, the foundation grew more moderate and less inclined to view the embargo as the linchpin in U.S. policy toward Cuba. Disgruntled hardliners split off to form the Cuban Liberty Council. By implementing the council’s proposals to limit travel and remittances to Cuba, proposals opposed by the CANF, Bush chose to ally himself to the more conservative group.

Bush made his first major policy speech on Cuba in May of 2004, during a presidential election year in which exile-rich Florida would deliver key electoral votes. During that speech, Bush unveiled the mostly hard-line proposals of his Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. The commission was composed of cabinet members who aimed to “bring about a peaceful near-term end to the dictatorship.”

When the president gave his speech in Miami, Cuban Liberty Council members were at his side. Ninoska Perez Castellon, director of the Cuban Liberty Council, said she’s pleased Bush “has not let himself be fooled” that changes are occurring in Cuba. She said continuing to deny the Cuban government “the funds to continue repression” is the moral stance the United States must take, even if it means preventing Cuban Americans from visiting and helping their families.

In implementing his commission’s recommendations,Bush reversed most of Clinton’s initiatives. Clinton tried to push Cuba towards a more open society through an increase of “people-to-people” contacts between Americans and Cubans.

Another recommendation adopted by Bush was to increase federal money for U.S. based groups that help dissidents, like the Directorio Democratico Cubano which helped Mirta Pernet and Damaris Garcia emigrate to Miami. U.S. government involvement with Cuba’s dissident movement bolsters Cuban government claims that critics of the system are paid mercenaries.

Despite Cuba’s failure to collapse after the fall of the Soviet Union, hard line exiles and the Bush administration continue to hope for a Solidarity type movement that will end all vestiges of a nearly 50-year Socialist system.Bush didn’t come up with the idea of helping opponents of Fidel Castro’s government. That was done by Washington soon after Fidel Castro came to power and made policy with the 1996 Helms Burton Act that tightened the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba and established a U.S. Agency for International Development grant program for the groups working to “democratize” Cuba.

Since 2000, the grant program distributed more than $70 million to dozens of groups, most of them run by Cuban exiles in Florida. A November of 2006 Government Accountability Office report said grantees offered moral support and a “significant” amount of humanitarian aid to dissidents. But it also catalogued a list of failings, including lack of accounting dollars spent or money spent on paying salaries of family members or organization officials

One or two grantees could not justify certain purchases made with USAID funds, including a gas chainsaw, computer gaming equipment – including Nintendo Gameboys and Sony Playstations – a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates. The GAO report concluded that USAID oversight of the grants did not “provide adequate assurance that the grant funds are being used properly and that grantees are in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.’

Neither the USAID nor the Directorio Democratico Cubano would answer questions about the program’s operations.

Garcia said restrictions on giving grant money directly to dissidents turned the program into a “political patronage system in South Florida” aimed at keeping exile leaders loyal to the administration.

Garcia is a Democrat who is challenging Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla. The congressman and his older brother Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., are Cuban Americans who are passionate defenders of the embargo.

But Garcia is betting on a demographic shift in the Cuban American community that he said has been ignored by the White House – and Mario Diaz-Balart. Most Cuban Americans living in the United States today arrived after 1980 and have relatives on the island. They tend to be more moderate and resent Bush’ s stand.

“They don’t want to have an ideological argument, they just want to take care of their families,” Garcia said.

Several administration officials, including Dan Fisk, National Security Agency senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs–considered Bush’s Cuba policy guru–declined to be interviewed for this article. But Frank Mora, a Cuba specialist at the National War College, said the Bush administration is committed to the idea that dissidents are catalysts for change. The template is Eastern Europe and the success of dissident movements in Poland and Czechoslovakia, where with CIA help, dissidents played a substantial role in bringing down the Iron Curtain.

But there is no CIA help for Cuba’s dissidents. There are other important differences the Bush administration appears to ignore, Mora said. Eastern European societies were more open and had much more access to visitors and information from the outside, he said, “but in Cuba, those spaces are not available.”

Instead of “creating space” Bush has restricted American travel to Cuba, permissible with a Treasury Department license, and limited Cuban American visits to family on the island. Mora said Cubans have been socialized to think there’s only two choices, the regime or the “Mafia” of right-wing exiles in Miami, and are unlikely to form an opposition movement.

“People are not going to go out in the streets because they don’t know what they would do afterwards,” he said.

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American studies at the University of Miami, also said the vision of protest spurring rapid change in Cuba is fantasy.

“Succession has taken place and the transition is going to be slow and deliberate,” he said. “I don’t see the system crumbling the day Fidel dies. That’s just not going to happen”

Yet Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart is confident dissent will change Cuba. He’s glad Bush boosted money for U.S. efforts to “democratize Cuba” to $40 million a year and said Fidel Castro’s death “is going to open the door to Cuba.”

“Whoever receives his power is going to have to share it with the people before they take it away,” he said.

But there’s a chorus of criticism of the administration’s approach. Vicky Huddleston, who served as the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in Cuba during the Clinton administration and first two years of the Bush administration said U.S.-Cuba relations “just got nastier and nastier” during the Bush presidency.

After a rafter crisis in 1994, U.S. and Cuban officials used to regularly meet face-to-face every six months as part of a migration accord negotiated between the Clinton administration and Fidel Castro’s government. But Huddleston said the Bush State Department had no interest in the migration accord meetings.

“I kept sending cables saying ‘we have to have the meetings’ and got noresponse,” she said.

Cuba reacted to increased hostility from Washington by curbing its outreach to American businesses and U.S. travelers - be they church groups from the Midwest or celebrities from Hollywood.

“Fidel loved Kevin Costner and Carole King coming to see him. He just ate it up,” Huddleston said. “He was once willing to make concessions to gain world respect.”

Reacting to Cuba’s shoot down of exile-piloted planes over Havana in 1996, Clinton reluctantly signed the Helms-Burton bill into law, a move that won him enough support from exiles in Miami to win Florida’s in his re-election that year. But Clinton softened his stance towards Cuba in his second term -- and Havana signaled it was open to positive gestures from Washington. During a few years of thaw, Pope John Paul II visited the island and a Cuban national team played the Baltimore Orioles.

But Cuba changed policy soon after Bush assumed power. The island has taken advantage of a Clinton-era law that cracked the embargo to purchase about $1.7 billion in American food products. But sales have diminished in the last few years.

In March of 2003, the Cuban government shocked its European trading partners by rounding up 75 dissidents and activists. Many of them, including Omar Pernet Hernandez, are serving long jail sentences. The Cuban government accused many of those it rounded up of receiving assistance from groups funded by USAID grants – an activity severely punished under Cuban law.

Cuba’s improving economy, spurred by rising nickel prices and Venezuelan oil subsidies, makes it easier for Havana to remain hostile to Washington. But Cuba may be preparing for the day Bush leaves office.

In December Havana sent a veteran diplomat to head the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, the island’s diplomatic mission in the United States. Jorge Bolanos, 71, formerly Cuba’s ambassador to Mexico. Bolanos is said to have Raul Castro’s complete trust and authority to negotiate with U.S. officials.

Although efforts by Congress in the 1990s eroded presidential authority over Cuba policy, Huddleston thinks the next president can, and probably will, ease some of Bush’s restrictions by reinterpreting current regulations. She said it’s possible to “write away” the prohibitions on travel by “interpreting liberally” the 13 categories of Americans who are now eligible to apply for Treasury Department permission to travel to Cuba so nearly everyone qualifies.

Under current regulations, only certain groups, including journalists, religious people and academics – can apply for travel licenses,.

The Democratic seizure of the House and Senate in November of 2006 was expected to allow Congress to reverse Bush’s restrictions and make new openings to travel and trade.

But Bush’s threat to veto any bill that weakened the embargo -- and a successful outreach by the anti-Castro U.S.-Cuba Democracy political action committee to Democratic freshmen -- helped scuttle all efforts for change. It also didn’t help embargo foes in Congress that the Senate’s agenda is controlled by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who--like his gambling industry constituency -- supports the Cuban embargo.

In the House, most Cuba bills were referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., a Hungarian immigrant and staunch anti-Communist. A strong backer of the embargo, Lantos let the Cuba legislation languish.

“I don’t think there can be any less going on with Cuba,” said Robert Muse, a Washington attorney involved in Cuba issues.

Like many Cuba watchers, Muse is waiting to see what November’s elections bring. “There’s only one way things can go, and that’s up,” he said.

While it’s a certainty Bush will leave power next January, it’s less clear when Fidel Castro will finally drop the reins.The waiting game on Cuba will end with the comandante’s death – which will end five decades of Fidelismo and allow his younger brother – and those who come after – to try something else.

By Ana Radelat