Convincing Cubans

The Brookings Institution has issued another one of those helpful cookbooks on how to prepare Cuba. The new recipes suggest adding more ingredients from the US public to lessen the awful taste of stale White House concoctions.

Last year, Brookings offered advice on how to con Cubans into accepting a “new” US policy to “advance the interests of the United States in seeking stable relationships based on common hemispheric values.” [1] Presumably, the US-assisted destruction of the Honduran government would be an example of preferred hemispheric values.

Now, from the Brookings Institution, comes “U.S. Public Diplomacy for Cuba: Why It’s Needed and How to Do It,”[2] in which former British Ambassador in Cuba Paul Hare makes the case that cultural exchanges, NGOs and even ordinary tourists can help convince Cubans to be more like — well, the people at Brookings.

However, public diplomacy faces a challenge in persuading them. The Ambassador acknowledged after his 2001-2004 assignment in Havana was over that most Cubans want change but not free-market capitalism “or a US-imposed solution.”

Worse, “Most Cubans are either too bored or resigned to care,” he wrote. [3] Given the bleak almost gulag-like picture he drew of Cuba’s state security systems (“one of the most complete instruments of control in the world”), public diplomacy may have nothing they want to buy.

What is public diplomacy? When Otto Reich ran the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1980s, he used it as a propaganda weapon for the Reagan administration and turned it on the US population. He was accused, among other things, of having engaged in unlawful efforts covertly to bring the US media in behind Reagan’s Central American wars. [4] He evidently did not read the instructions that came with the weapon and was aiming the thing in the wrong direction.

Things are different now. Ambassador Hare thinks public diplomacy can help convince Cubans to support US objectives – in other words, assisted suicide.

Cubans probably already know what US objectives are. They can read about them in the Clinton era Helms-Burton Act or in reports from George W. Bush’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which lay out the road to a market-driven future for Cuba as bright as the one facing the United States. Something might have to be done, however, to tone down the purest expression of Cuba policy produced in President Eisenhower’s State Department: “Every possible means should be bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of government.” [5]

How will public diplomacy change the minds of all those Cubans who do not want free-market capitalism? While talking up its advantages, public diplomacy should keep its mouth shut about how free-market capitalism is working out in the United States.

Does this mean that public diplomacy must engage in scripted lying and invidious comparisons with Cuba? Not necessarily. The message need not be grounded in facts but aimed at creating a pleasant daydream in the minds of Cubans about how much the United States means to them.

Cuba without the U.S.? Impossible!

In his Brookings essay, the Ambassador answers a question few people have ever thought to ask. Why was there no public diplomacy in Cuba during the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista?

Because,” he says, “the United States had no need to convince the Cuban government and people of why the United States mattered to them. In almost every aspect of life, it was impossible to conceive of Cuba without the United States.”

The Ambassador may have hit upon a theory of revolution that could lead to entirely new lines of investigation. Fidel Castro made it possible to conceive of Cuba without the United States.

It turns out that the lasting effect of the revolution may have been to spread unhealthy forgetfulness. It was this that Fidel Castro was exporting, not communism.

Thus, it appears that Fidel’s error was in running about making all sorts of unnecessary economic, social and political changes when all he really accomplished was to make it difficult for Cubans to see where their true interests lie. Now it remains only to convince them through public diplomacy that they must again understand how much the United States still matters.

However, on one point, the Ambassador is not quite right; there was indeed considerable public diplomacy before 1959. Many non-governmental organizations like the Cosa Nostra did yeoman work in outreach to the Cuban people. Likewise, many individuals in the informal people-to-people exchanges programs of that period sought closer bilateral relations with young Cuban women down on their luck.

With that minor correction, let us examine the Ambassador’s scheme. To clear the way for effective public diplomacy, he recommends resolving several outstanding issues (“legacies) that get in the way. Cubans for example are unhappy with propaganda from Radio and TV Marti, having a US naval base on their territory, known terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles roaming free in Miami, the State Department putting Cuba on its list of state sponsors of terrorism and the continued imprisonment of five Cuban agents sent to infiltrate Miami terrorist organizations. The Ambassador gives few details on how these issues might be resolved – perhaps by an out-of-court settlement in which the United States admits to no wrongdoing.

Renouncing the goal of destroying the Cuban government, however, is not even on the list. Here we have a flaw in the Ambassador’s thinking: actually showing Cubans what the United States has in mind for them rather defeats the purpose of public diplomacy especially if what you stand for is ending their way of life. To make this thing work, the practitioners of public diplomacy will have to explain to Cubans how economic and other forms of strangulation are in their self interest.

How could the Ambassador have omitted this detail? Something in his analysis of Cuba is a bit off. The answer is found in his 2004 report. You see, he’s British, and unlike the Americans, the British do not have a Cuban exile community to instruct them on the correct study of Fidel. “So real knowledge about Fidel, his objectives and methods is scarce,” concluded the Ambassador after three years on the island.

It follows then that all public diplomacy should be carried out by Miami exiles.

Nobody dies for a stove in the U.S.

The current case of the Cuban hunger strikers offers an opportunity for public diplomacy – properly directed by Miami exiles — to show how much better prisoners in the United States are treated. Government and media  criticism of Cuba over the recent death of hunger striker Orlando Zapata  Tamayo and the ongoing hunger strikes by others is mostly directed to people  outside of Cuba, not to Cubans. Few people there had ever heard of them and  few sympathize with the small number of dissidents who support hunger  strikers. Cuban social scientist Rafael Hernandez believes this is because  the dissident movement “lacks leadership and legitimacy.” [6]

Ambassador Hare would probably say that what it lacks are not leaders and legitimacy but input from our public diplomacy.

What he likely would advise is that our anxiety over prisoners in Cuba refusing to eat should be communicated to the Cuban public through direct involvement of exiles speaking for Miami and parts of New Jersey.

Instead, we have President Obama butting in with a ham-handed official pronouncement accusing the Cuban government of repression and calling for the release of all political prisoners. Perhaps Obama did not read the part about how “the United States should recognize that the most effective and credible voice is not always that of its government.”

Apparently, Obama does not know how “to engage the Cuban public with a proactive, unconditional and visible outreach strategy.”

This and other principles of effective public diplomacy would require Obama, through outreach organizations funded by Congress, to explain to Cubans why Zapata, a convict imprisoned for ordinary felonies, should have been given a TV, stove and telephone for his prison cell as he had requested.

Cubans should know that convicts in US prisons routinely get such things provided they do not stop eating for more than 10 days as stipulated by the Bureau of Prisons. Some prisoners demand curtains and down comforters, for which only a weekend fast is needed.

To promote further awareness of positive achievements, Obama should instruct his public diplomats to cite recent examples of the humane treatment of felons in US prisons. Many have been released after stating to a notary that they have become disenchanted with the US government, its deficit spending, the inflationary Federal Reserve balance sheet and other policies. If requested, they may be issued small arms, tranquilized and relocated by helicopter to their natural habitat in the Michigan woods.

This kind of information about how much better these things work in the United States would resonate with Cubans and point the way toward “a policy centered on promoting the well-being of the Cuban people,” at least those who are in prison. Lavish parties, thrown by the US embassy might work, but if the Cubans do not attend, then perhaps the British mansion in Havana could be used and the 32,000 English pounds – what Ambassador Hare spent per year – would be increased. In fact the indoor swimming pool at the former Ambassador’s home in Havana could be made available to the invited natives, it will be a way of demonstrating that His Majesty’s representative  did not engage in tourist apartheid.

Indeed, all Cubans should be allowed to go on hunger strikes to get a new stove and fridge. Why should they have to go to prison to enjoy these things? The next thing you know the Cuban government will forbid its citizens the right to go to prison! Public diplomacy can expose these new levels of repression.

Upon further reflection, why should Cubans have to go hungry to enjoy the American dream? If US senators don’t actually have to talk all night to carry on a filibuster, why can’t Cubans declare a virtual hunger strike when they need new appliances?

The hungerless hunger strike should be promoted as a human right and any attempt to infringe on it by tyrannical government should be denounced by minor Czech diplomats and Miami-based rock stars.

Obviously, one could spend years in Cuba and never comprehend what the country is all about. And the Ambassador seemingly believes that the US government can put its best features honestly before the Cuban public instead of wallowing in Washington’s “unfortunate” past errors of invasion, sabotage, assassination and subversion. The ambassador, like Obama, is telling the world and the Cubans “I didn’t come here to debate the past – I came here to deal with the future.” But, the US and the British continue to behave as they have done since the 1950s. It did not work then. It won’t work now.

ROBERT SANDELS is an analyst and writer for Cuba-L Direct.  This essay was written for Cuba-L Direct and for CounterPunch.


[1] “Cuba: A New Policy for Critical and Constructive Engagement,” Brookings Institution, 04/09,.

[2] Paul Hare, “U.S. Public Diplomacy for Cuba: Why It’s Needed and How to Do It,” Brookings Institution, 03/10, .

[3] Hare to Foreign Office, no date. See BBC hyperlink, BBC News, 11/20/06,

[4] “Public Diplomacy and Covert Propaganda. The Declassified Record of Ambassador Otto Juan Reich,” National Security Archives, 03/02/01,

 [5] Lester D. Mallory Memorandum From the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American, 04/60, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958-1960, Volume VI, Cuba, quoted in Salin Lamrani, “Las sanciones económicas contra Cuba: el fracaso de una política cruel e irracional,” Rebelión,

[6] Rafael Hernandez, “The Cuban Opposition’s Resources,” Cuba-L Analysis.






ROBERT SANDELS is an analyst and writer for Cuba-L Direct. This article was written for CounterPunch and Cuba-L Direct.