Interview with Louis A. Perez JR

Campaign News | Sunday, 11 January 2004

On 45 years of the Cuban revolution

The News & Oberver


Marking 45 years in power, fidel castro confronts a changing nation and new u.s. tensions. where is cuba headed?

11 January 2004

The News & Observer

THE N&O: Cuba has had a rough year, with the incarceration of 75 dissidents and deteriorating relations with the West. What is the state of the nation as Fidel Castro marks 45 years in power?

LOUIS A. PEREZ JR.: Conditions are far better than they were 10 years ago in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union -- as a result of European, Canadian and Latin American investment, opening the island to Canadian and Mexican tourists and allowing people to work for themselves. Equally important are the remittances from Cubans living abroad that are flowing back to family members on the island. That has been calculated to be as much as $1 billion a year, and I think that's conservative.

The worst time, known as the special period, was the post-Soviet period. There is more automobile traffic than 10 to 12 years ago. More food supplies and more goods are available to Cubans. If the frame of reference is the 1990s to the early years of 2000, then conditions are substantially better. To say they're better doesn't mean they're good. That's the always-understood "but."

THE N&O: Why has the United States failed, for 45 years, to bring Castro down?

PEREZ: One of the driving elements of the Cuban revolution was a fierce and proud nationalism. For much of Cuba's history, the principal threat to [national sovereignty, self-determination and independence] has been the United States. So one of the powerful appeals of the Cuban revolution was its capacity to sustain these historic objectives. By maintaining this constant pressure on Cuba, by threatening Cuba with the specter of armed attacks and continuing the economic embargo, U.S. policy plays into the strongest suit of the Cuban government, that it is defending national sovereignty.

The U.S. policy of embargo, political isolation, diplomatic ostracism is predicated on the goal of creating scarcity in the hope that Cubans would say, "Let's get rid of the government and do something to make our lives easier." The problem is that the better part of valor for many Cubans is not to enter into any activity to overthrow the government but rather to emigrate. On the one hand, the U.S. intent is to create very difficult conditions in Cuba, and on the other hand, U.S. policy makes it easy for Cubans to leave because they are granted asylum as soon as they touch U.S. soil.

And because of U.S. policy, whatever local opposition may have arisen in Cuba has all gone into exile. There is very little opposition in Cuba. There are human rights movements, but the opposition in Cuba lives in Florida.

THE N&O: By May 1, a Bush administration panel is to recommend how the U.S. government can "bring about a peaceful, near-term end to the dictatorship" in Cuba. What do you expect the strategy to be?

PEREZ: People have been talking about this for 45 years. It's difficult to imagine what they could possibly come up with that hasn't already been said by somebody, somewhere, sometime. There is not much pressure the U.S. could add on Cuba anymore. Basically, it's done everything it could do short of an armed invasion. That possibility is the specter with which the Cuban leadership lives daily.

THE N&O: Should we even have such a strategy, and if so, what should it be?

PEREZ: Let's try the model used in China and Vietnam by maintaining channels of communication, promoting [trade] and travel with the idea that this will effect change toward a more open, more pluralistic, more democratic society. If that works to some effect in Vietnam and China, how is it we have this punishing policy of isolation, embargo and restricted travel with Cuba? It's impossible to make any sense out of it until you realize we're looking at people who are playing to the electoral votes in Florida.

Fidel Castro is the political leader that vast numbers of Americans love to hate. He stands as a living, breathing reminder of the limits of American power. Here is Cuba, 90 miles [away], continuing to defy U.S. determination to bring down this government.

The second issue is the Cuban-American vote and its lobbying clout in Washington and the vote in Florida, particularly Dade County. The worst possible thing that could have happened in relation to U.S.-Cuban relations was that the 2000 election was resolved in Florida by a mere couple of thousand votes. If it had been decisive one way or the other, then the lobbying clout of the Cuban-American vote would have been diminished substantially.

Every four years, and we're seeing it this year, we shift Cuba into the main bloodstream of American national politics, with both parties politicking in Florida, each promising the Cuban-American community that they will be the one to do something about the government of Fidel Castro. It's been that way since Kennedy and Nixon.

THE N&O: How does the war on terror affect U.S. policy toward Cuba?

PEREZ: There are two facets to terror with regard to Cuba. Cuba, with some justification, has maintained for the better part of the last 45 years that the U.S. has been turning a blind eye to terrorist operations originating out of Florida and elsewhere in the Caribbean. A Cuban airliner was blown up by a terrorist organization in midair in October 1976, and in the 1990s, commando groups attacked a hotel on a Cuban beach to discourage tourism. So Cubans are looking at the United States as the source of terrorism in their history.

When former President Jimmy Carter was on his way to Cuba about a year and a half ago, on the eve of his departure, the State Department announced that Cuba had the capacity to produce biological weapons. Cuba does have a very strong biotechnology program. To suggest Cubans have the capacity to develop biological weapons is, on the face of it, probably correct. But to invite the inference that Cubans were indeed engaged in this activity almost sounded like a trial balloon to set up a situation where, once the charge is made, it leads to demands that Cuba open up facilities to inspection. It doesn't take much imagination to put the most cynical perspective on this to see this come up again. Then we would find ourselves in a situation not dissimilar to the weapons of mass destruction situation in Iraq, that Cubans are engaged in this activity and the U.S. needs to go in and engage in regime change. That is a frightful prospect but certainly something that Cuban leadership cannot discount as a method by which the United States might justify an intervention.

THE N&O: You have said Castro is likely to stay in power until he dies. What happens then?

PEREZ: So much depends on the circumstances in which he dies. If one believes in family history as a guide to longevity, opponents of the Castro government have to be demoralized because his parents lived well into their 90s. He's got another 20 years to go. What happens then? I don't know. But the people in this government are very clever; they're very resourceful; they study the world; they study the United States. It would be utterly untenable to imagine that they have not given a lot of thought to succession in Cuba. That they have chosen not to reveal these plans is another question. That there are plans I don't think anybody should doubt.

(Louis A. Perez Jr., a history professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, is an expert on Cuba.)

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