Cuban Deja Vu All Over Again, All Over Again
On December 10, US Interest Section Chief in Havana James Cason offered yet another Bush Administration policy missile to overthrow the Cuban government and replace it with a "democratic" regime, i.e.; one that would revere private property and kiss Washington’s butt. Bush had already tightened the harsh trade and travel restrictions on Cuba, following this year’s presidential panel recommendations. Headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Cuba policy panel listed measures Washington should take to foster a post-Castro transition. Cuban Vice President Ricardo Alarcon dismissed these measures as nothing more than a blueprint for overthrowing the government. Cason denies any such intentions.
Cason seems neither to learn from his false predictions nor forget his passionate rhetoric. Apparently oblivious to flagrant human rights abuses committed by US personnel at the Guantanamo Gulag, Cason used International Human Rights Day to throw a bash at his posh Havana residence, where Senator Jack Kennedy once cavorted. Cuban dissidents drank and mingled with the Havana press corps, when Cason announced, according to the Associated Press, that Castro’s government "is on its last legs."
Some imbibers spilled their rum over this remark. Oswaldo Paya, leader of the Varella Project, which collected 10 thousand plus signatures on a "pro-democracy" petition, offered a prayer: "Would God grant that our children and the Cuban people do not inherit our hates and miseries but rather our faith so that they can construct their own history.’"
Cason apparently thought that Paya’s reference to Divine intervention validated his own fact free conclusion: "Even regime supporters are discreetly preparing for the inevitable democratic transition." He neither named "regime supporters" nor acknowledged that state security agents had penetrated the US-backed dissident movement. Indeed, a dozen infiltrators surfaced at the March 2003 trial to testify against 75 of those most favored by the US government which, contrary to Cuban law, paid them in goods and services.
In recent weeks however, to repair relations with the EU countries, which had criticized the trials, Cuba released several dissidents. In fact, the United States holds more political prisoners than Cuba at Guantanamo; and in sub-human conditions.
Political prisoners obfuscate the essence of Cuba’s relations with the United States. Castro’s main opponents live in south Florida and have little interest in democracy, unless democracy means terrorism. Indeed, in May the US government permitted indicted terrorists Guillermo Novo, Gaspar Jimenez and Pedro Remon to dance smilingly into Miami’s international airport after Panama’s outgoing President pardoned them apparently as the result of bribes. Each of the three participated in assassinations and other terrorist activities.
Possibly Cason forgot about these characters or deluded himself. He and other US diplomats have repeatedly predicted Castro’s impending demise. In 1995, Scott Armstrong and I shared a delusional experience in Havana with US Interest Section Chief Joseph Sullivan and Gene Bigler, a member of his staff.
Predicting Castro’s forthcoming departure, they recounted the summer 1994 riot. During this period of Cuba’s severest economic hardship, lack of electricity, water and jobs, a Cuban policeman encountered a man attempting to hijack a boat. Supposedly, the hijacker shot the policeman and then was killed by other cops. That incident ignited the already raw nerves of the frustrated population of Old Havana. Angry men marched along Havana’s sea wall shouting "down with Fidel." Onlookers chanted with them. When hotel construction workers further along the sea wall heard about the demonstration, they stopped work and confronted them. The two groups fought. As the melee ebbed, Castro arrived and stared some of the protesters down. The goading onlookers now began to shout "Fi-del, Fi-del."
Armstrong and I checked the story with political officers at the French, British and Canadian embassies. All agreed that some 700-900 demonstrators had fought a lesser number of construction workers. Unarmed police — except for billy clubs had tried to break it up. Castro had then appeared.
Sullivan and Bigler, however, claimed that the number of anti-Castro protestors had reached 10 thousand and that dissidence was growing. Unlike their counterparts at the other Western embassies, the US diplomats did not videotape the fracas and analyze the tape for crowd count analysis. Even though the fighting occurred under Sullivan’s office window, he apparently failed to make even a rough count. During the remainder of the 1990s no viable political movement emerged; nor did one develop in the first years of the 21st Century.
But Cason reflects the Bush Administration in confusing wishful thinking with reality. For 45 years, ten US presidents have tried and failed to kill Castro and overthrow his government. During this period, the anti-Castro forces have not evolved toward democracy or internal coherence.
In December 1960, I waited with a group of sixty students to board a Cubana airliner from Miami to Havana. Angry protestors screamed slogans at us: "No Travel to Communist dictatorship Cuba." Some spit at the students, who tried to talk to the anti-Castro crowd.
"If Cuba’s as terrible as you say," one student asked an antagonist, "you should encourage us to go, so we can tell the world about the awful conditions in Cuba."
The protestor looked puzzled. A group leader in Spanish ordered the perplexed demonstrator: "Don’t argue, just spit."
I asked an airport cop to stop the spitting. He looked at the ceiling and said: "I didn’t see any spitting."
One Cuban exile whispered in accented English. "You’re crazy. Do you think the United States will allow Castro to have communism so close to its shores?"
Hours later, the spittle wiped clean from skin and clothing, we landed in Havana and saw for ourselves. Young Cubans hoisted four barreled Czech anti-aircraft guns onto the mezzanine roof of Havana’s Riviera Hotel, they dug trenches and planted explosives under bridges: preparation for a US invasion, which came in April 1961 at the Bay of Pigs.
43 plus years later, after one invasion fiasco, thousands of terrorist attacks including possible biological warfare — and hundreds of assassination attempts, Castro prevails, broken knee and all.
He outfoxed Kennedy who, after accepting defeat at the Bay of Pigs, authorized a protracted terror campaign that led Castro to accept Soviet nuclear missiles. President Johnson, occupied with Vietnam, maintained hostile economic policies, but lowered the terrorist confrontations. Nixon escalated the terror campaign. Ironically, some of "his Cubans" got caught at the 1972 Watergate burglary that led to his downfall.
Ford pursued a brief détente, but Jimmy Carter saw an opportunity to wage an aggressive human rights and immigration campaign, which Castro countered by allowing 120 thousand Cubans to migrate (Marielitos). US authorities did not easily handle that number of immigrants.
Reagan talked tough but did little. Domestically, however, he delivered US Cuba policy to the Cuban American National Foundation, a far-right group whose leader, Jorge Mas Canosa, promoted lobbying and secretly financed terrorism. This privatization of policy did not help US diplomacy. But it did strengthen the hand of the most reactionary exiles.
Since then, presidential candidates routinely seek the anti-Castro gang’s money and votes in South Florida and promise to do nasty things to their pesky neighbor.
In 1992, candidate Bill Clinton ran short of money. He hastened to Florida, endorsed anti-Cuban legislation (the Torricelli Bill, which became the Cuba Democracy Act) and chastened Bush (41) for not "bringing down the hammer on Castro."
He received a hefty check from the rich anti-Castro crowd for that remark. Like previous presidents, Clinton spent little time actually dealing with Cuba, except for the periodic crisis that inevitably results when hostility characterizes relations between close neighbors.
By allowing the anti-Castro "Brothers to the Rescue" to use US soil to fly over Cuba and drop leaflets, however, Clinton opened the way for the predictable denouement. In late February 1996, Cuban MIGs shot down two Brothers to the Rescue Planes that had over flown Cuban air space. To retaliate, Clinton signed the draconian Helms-Burton bill, which punished non-US companies for trading with or investing in Cuba. This brought retaliatory threats from US trading partners.
Bush’s aggressive anti-Castro economic plans will certainly cause more hardship for Cubans. But to bring "freedom to 11 million Cubans," Bush cannot rely on economic measures alone. Escalating threats almost inevitably lead to provocations. In 1961, inexperienced Cuban soldiers defeated a better trained and equipped invading force at the Bay of Pigs. Cuba’s contemporary armed forces and citizenry have experience and have just completed two weeks of military exercises no longer trying to hoist weapons with primitive tools onto a hotel roof. Bush deserves his aggressive reputation. He invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. But since then, belligerent statements have fallen into the "empty threat" category.
He’s unlikely to invade North Korea, Iran, Syria, Zimbabwe and Cuba. After the losses and frustrations suffered by US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush will not easily convince Congress to unleash troops which don’t exist to fight an endless enemies list for God and freedom. In the meantime, Bush should commend Cason for escalating the war of empty words. He posted outside the US Interests Section in Havana a Happy Holiday sign that also supports the 75 dissidents. The Cubans countered by placing across the street from Cason’s office photos of Iraqi prisoners tortured by US troops at Abu Ghraib. Merry Christmas and Bah Humbug to you Mr. Cason!
SAUL LANDAU teaches at Cal Poly Pomona University, where he is the director of Digital Media Programs and International Outreach, and is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also the co-author of "Assassination on Embassy Row," which is about the Letelier and Moffitt murders. His new book is The Business of America.