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Bush and Castro Face Off

by LAURA CARLSEN

The recent exchange of threats between the Cuban and U.S. governments may seem like more of the same stand-off rhetoric that has characterized relations between the two since the Cuban revolution 45 years ago. But as a Cuban political transition approaches and aggressive new U.S. policies call for regime change and tighter economic sanctions, a dangerous confrontation may be brewing. This month restrictions to tighten the U.S. embargo against Cuba go into effect. The measures will cost U.S. taxpayers some $59 million dollars — and that’s just for starters.

The new policies are the result of a 500-page report from the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. The Commission was charged with developing plans “to bring an end to the regime of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and to prepare to assist a post-Castro Cuba,” in the words of Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega.

The commission recommendations include increased support for Cuban dissidents, further restrictions on travel and remittances to the island, stepped-up propaganda efforts and measures to exert more international pressure on the island.

Castro Warns of “Total War”

On June 21, Fidel Castro addressed 200,000 Cubans in Havana calling the measures “cruel” and warning that U.S. intervention would lead to “total war” and “massive exodus.” In an unusual reference to his own death, the 78-year old leader emphasized that the rules of transferring power to his brother Raul were firmly established. The Commission report explicitly rejects the prospect of Raul Castro taking power.

The Bush administration has dedicated an inordinate amount of money and effort to tighten the 44-year embargo and “hasten the transition” in Cuba. In addition to the millions of dollars stipulated in the report, enforcement of the travel ban and the ban on investment and aid to Cuba have been stepped up, diverting millions from the Homeland Security budget. According to the Washington Office on Latin America, the Office of Foreign Assets Control has assigned four agents work to trace the financing webs of Osama Bin Laden while more than twenty work on enforcing the Cuban embargo.

So how did a little island with a population of 11 million and a GDP of $2,000 per capita come to be viewed as a top priority for regime change in the post-Cold War era?

Few would argue that the Cuban government is not responsible for human rights violations. Journalists and international human rights organizations have consistently denounced the Castro government for the lack of freedom of expression and the kangaroo court trials that led to the imprisonment of dissidents and summary execution of hijackers last year could hardly be seen as a paradigm of judicial process. But from there to identify the island as a major target for regime change in a world rife with problems, from torture in Iraq to genocide in Sudan, is a giant leap.

A Million Cubans Cry “Hail Cesar”

The offensive has already galvanized support for Fidel Castro in Cuba. On May 14 more than a million Cubans marched pass the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana to protest the measures, crying “Hail, Cesar” as a rebuke to U.S. imperialism. As President Bush knows well, a unifying enemy is the best friend of a faltering politician.

Even prominent members of the opposition, including Osvaldo Paya of Project Varela, have rejected the plan. They recognize that to receive direct support from the U.S. government is tantamount to a kiss of death for any credible opposition in Cuba . Besides violating the principle of independence from external influence, U.S. ties mark dissidents for repression from the Cuban government and decrease their moral authority with the Cuban public. In a nation that produced the great patriot, Jose Marti, it’s unlikely that any successful popular movement can be orchestrated from outside its borders and out of control of its people. It’s not clear, then, exactly who will receive the $29 million designated for work with Cuban dissidents and divided into separate funds for women, Afro-Cubans, religious groups, labor, nongovernmental organizations and religious groups. If the past is any indication, much of that money will remain in Miami.

The tightened economic embargo is also likely to backfire. In response to the measures, the Castro government immediately raised dollar prices and restricted dollar purchases. It’s belt-tightening time again in a very skinny nation. As always, the ordinary people, not party leaders or government officials, will pay the price.

Several weeks ago, reports surfaced that Repsolthe Spanish petroleum companyhad begun oil exploration off the coast of Cuba . The company is paying $195,000 a day to rent the drilling platform, indicating they have high expectations of discovering significant oil deposits. Needless to say, oil discovery would severely undermine the economic impact of the U.S. blockade.

Finally, the unspoken constituency of the new measures against Cuba are Cuban-American voters in the swing state of Florida. But a significant part of the Cuban-American community has also rejected the measures. Their family members suffer from the attempt to isolate the Cuban economy, and restrictions on family visits (from every year to every three years), spending limits on visits, and reductions in gifts allowed affect them directly.

Playing with Fire

The new U.S. measures to bring down the Castro government in Cuba risk having the opposite effect. They are also playing with fire. A plane is being outfitted, to the tune of $18 million dollars, to buzz the island broadcasting Radio Marti’s “the voice of freedom” so Cuban authorities cannot jam the signal. This could conceivably lead to a violation of national airspace and consequent confrontation.

Some may think playing chicken in the Caribbean is a good way to justify intervention to bring down the Castro government. But more likely it will produce another unqualified disaster–for the Cuban people and for U.S. taxpayers who would again pay the price of a government that chooses forced “regime change” over constructive dialogue and engagement.

LAURA CARLSEN is director of the Americas Program of the Interhemispheric Resource Center (IRC), online at www.americaspolicy.org. She can be contacted at laura@irc-online.org.

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .

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