Barriers to change

Campaign News | Wednesday, 18 July 2007

America's inane policy toward Cuba and Britain's opposition to lifting sanctions imposed against it will only hold back reform.

By Wayne S Smith, former Head of US Interests Section in Cuba

Writing in the Guardian last year, I described the utterly counterproductive nature of US policy toward Cuba and expressed the hope that "the British prime minister would not support Bush's gravely mistaken policies in Cuba as he did those in Iraq."

Sadly, just before leaving office, Blair in effect, did precisely that by having the United Kingdom vote against the majority in the European Union wanting to lift the sanctions imposed against Cuba in 2003 because of Castro's arrest of some 75 dissidents and the execution of three men who had attempted to hijack a ferry.

At the time, imposition of the sanctions seemed not unwarranted. As time went by, however, their usefulness came to be questioned. They were suspended in 2005, and by 2007 the majority of EU members seemed to believe they were more an impediment to positive change than an encouragement. In June, a majority of EU members supported a proposal put forward by Germany, then the holder of the EU's rotating presidency, to lift the sanctions altogether.

Unfortunately, getting rid of them required a unanimous vote and so the effort was turned back by the negative votes of a small minority, - the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Ireland, Belgium and Sweden - which held that normalisation should not take place without first seeing democratic reforms in Cuba. It was also noted that dropping the sanctions would have "irked" the US. And, so, the sanctions were simply suspended again, not cancelled.

On the face of it, not an unreasonable position. But for a sense of what is likely to encourage reforms in Cuba, and what is not, let us examine the historical record. What is sometimes called "the Cuban spring" began in 1998 when Castro invited the Pope to visit Cuba and allowed him not only to hold masses but to speak directly to the Cuban people on national TV. In the years that followed, there was an encouraging trend toward greater openness and tolerance of dissent, and also efforts to mend fences with the US.

During his trip to Cuba in May of 2002, for example, former President Carter met with Cuban dissidents and in his nationally televised speech to the Cuban nation, spoke of the Varela project, an initiative of theirs calling for greater political freedoms. The Cuban government may not have liked the Varela project, but it permitted its authors to collect thousands of signatures supporting it. And Oswaldo Paya, its principal architect, was even permitted to come to the US to receive the W Averell Harriman award from the National Democratic Institute. Things did indeed seem to be changing.

Changing too in terms of a readiness to cooperate with the US. Immediately after September 11 of 2001, Cuba expressed its solidarity with the American people and offered to cooperate fully with the US against terrorism - even to signing bilateral agreements to that effect.

Some positive response along the way from the US might have encouraged Cuba to continue to move in the direction of cooperation and liberalisation. But no such response ever came. On the contrary, the Bush administration's reaction to Cuba was one of unmitigated hostility. By 2003, it was actually calling for the ouster of the Castro regime and had announced its policy of "preemptive strikes" against any nation it deemed to be a potential threat to the US. It had already said Cuba represented such a threat. Thus, as the US invaded Iraq, the Cubans concluded it was time to batten down the hatches. As a Cuban friend put it to me during a visit to Havana just after the invasion: "Who knows? We may be next."

And if so, the Cubans reasoned, they could no longer afford to have dissidents, possibly directed by the US, roaming free. And so the crackdown. The arrests may well have been an overreaction, but it is not difficult to understand the rationale behind them. And we should note that they were brought about not because the US was seeking some relaxation in relations with Cuba; on the contrary, it was because of an unrelenting posture of confrontation, which continues today.

The Bush administration's position is that it will talk to Cuba only after it has held democratic elections. But that is to put the cart before the horse. The US could accomplish far more toward bringing about an open society by reducing tensions and opening a dialogue with Cuba. Its present path leads in exactly the opposite direction.

The sanctions imposed by the EU in 2003 were perhaps inevitable. But as a member of the German Foreign Office put it to me at a meeting in Berlin in late May, "I wish to God we had found some mechanism to modify or cancel them without a unanimous vote; with it, we are trapped with something we no longer agree with or believe to be helpful."

One can understand his frustration. But even with the sanctions ostensibly still in place, there are ways of moving in a more positive direction. Spain is doing so, moving toward dialogue and more productive relations. Germany, Italy and others seem to be moving in that direction as well. That is likely to achieve far more than the insistence of the nay-sayers that Cuba must first democratise and then they'll engage. That is simply to follow the lead of the US, which leads nowhere.

In announcing that the sanctions would only be suspended, not removed, the EU did at least suggest an EU-Cuban dialogue. Cuba rejected such a formula until the sanctions are "definitively lifted," but it remains open to the idea of a dialogue with the individual governments of the EU. And so, the way is open to the kind of gradual engagement indicated by Spain and others.

As a flaming Anglophile, I'd hoped to see the United Kingdom lead the way toward engagement. That Blair put the UK on the opposite course is a source of deep disappointment, just as my own government's utterly inane policy toward Cuba is a source of pain and embarrassment.

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