(This article originally appeared in the weekly Easy Reader, Hermosa Beach, Calif.)
November 8, 2007
It’s not that anybody was expecting surprises when President Bush mounted the podium at the State Department on October 24 to talk about Cuba।
"In this building," he began, "President John F। Kennedy spoke about the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba’s dictatorship. . . . Today another president comes with hope to discuss a new era for the United States and Cuba."
Actually, after 45 years, it was just more of the same.
Among the wonderful things he named to usher in the new era are a "Freedom Fund" for economic development, admission to the Partnership for Latin American Youth scholarship program, and — "Here’s an interesting idea to help the Cuban people," he said, as if he’d just thought it up — blanketing the country with internet-ready computers to be supplied by non-governmental organizations and faith-based groups. Such benefits will become available, however, "only if the Cuban regime, the ruling class, gets out of the way." Until then, the embargo and travel restrictions will continue, diplomatic relations will remain severed, and no negotiation will take place.
This is a new era?
Perhaps the most convincing proof of the futility of America’s intransigent policy toward Cuba is that Fidel Castro has outlasted nine American presidents and may very well outlast the tenth। Bush calls Castro’s "a failed regime।" If that’s failure, it’s certainly a durable one।
If ever there was a time for a major shift in Cuba policy, it is now। The once-blustering Fidel is sick and has turned the reins over to his younger, more circumspect brother Raul. A practical man, Raul masterminded a now-thriving tourist industry to bring in hard currency after Soviet aid dried up in the 1990’s. He also developed a creative urban-farming plan with a free-market component to lessen dependence on foreign food imports. There are signs that he is favorable toward a Chinese-style economy. Nothing could create the atmosphere for a "velvet revolution" more than normal relations with the U.S.
But Bush will not deal with dictators. Period.
There’s no doubt that this administration’s policy, like that of its predecessors, has been shaped by the politically powerful Cuban exile community in Miami. But there is something more radical at work here. The rhetoric of this speech was pure Bush, the Bush who brought you Iraq and may soon bring you Iran. It was Bush the idealist, Bush the ideologue, who was on display.
With his now familiar but no less frightening axis-of-evil hyperbole, he identified Cuba as "a tropical gulag," a place of "terror and trauma," with "horrors still unknown to the rest of the world."
Consistent with his approach toward repressive governments in Iraq, Iran, and Syria among others, and toward the Hamas in Palestine and the Hezbollah in Lebanon, Bush sees no room for compromise or tolerance toward the Castros or their likely Communist successors. "Life will not improve for Cubans under their current system of government," he declared. "It will not improve if we seek accommodation with a new tyranny in the interests of ‘stability.’ . . . The operative word in our future dealings with Cuba is not ‘stability.’ The operative word is ‘freedom.’"
What his own failed international policies have not taught him is that freedom is better nurtured by stability — by negotiation rather than confrontation, by inducement rather than sanction.
In an interview with Charlie Rose on PBS last week, the head of the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Mahomed ElBaradei, gave a refreshingly frank and lucid analysis of the present dynamic with Iran: The more the U.S. threatens, he said, the more the Iranian people will hunker down behind their government, no matter how oppressive it is and no matter how attracted so many of them are to Western ideas and lifestyles.
It is the same with Cuba, and then some.
Despite economic hardship, collectivization, and restrictions on free speech, reports suggest that most Cubans hardly consider their island "a tropical gulag." They are grateful for their educational and health-care systems and fiercely proud of their culture. Though they are obviously dissatisfied with the Communist system and eager for change, there is little apparent desire for overthrow. Many, in fact, retain a genuine affection for Fidel and for the ideals, if not the implementation, of his revolution.
What Cubans on the island fear more is attempts by the United States to engineer a "transition" — or even an Iraq-like invasion — when the Castro era ends. They want nothing more than free and open relations with the U.S. — but on their terms, not ours.
As one friend of mine, an organizer in the urban agriculture movement who has often visited Cuba to research its sustainable food production program, told me: "What I hear people saying is, ‘We want change, but we want to do it our way, not America’s way. Bush wants to liberate us, but we want to liberate ourselves.’"
You can’t help hoping that Bush might still surprise the world by emulating his predecessors. Richard Nixon’s initiative toward China — a total turnaround by the consummate Cold Warrior — has become a political paradigm of the triumph of common sense over ideology. While continuing to castigate Communist repression, he unexpectedly offered more amicable relations and freer trade, a move that sparked the systemic changes that have propelled China’s astounding economic growth. Much the same can be said about Ronald Reagan’s overtures to Soviet Premier Gorbachev after years of Evil Empire rhetoric. Both Nixon and Reagan proved to be practical politicians who saw the opportunity to induce change by acting synergistically with systems poised for change.
Bush’s speech indicates that he’s no Nixon nor Reagan. But he’s still got over a year to surprise us.