The Bush administrations aversion to dealing with Cuba is reducing our influence on the islandjust when theres a chance to encourage change.
The Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) sits on the side of a highway just outside Miami International Airport. OCB coordinates Radio and TV Marti, which are designed to offer accurate, objective news to ordinary Cubans, as an alternative to the relentless propaganda of the state-controlled media outlets. The office is supposed to be one of the key tools in the Bush administrations effort to lay the groundwork for a democratic Cuba. But in its corruption and mismanagement, it has come to resemble the Coalition Provisional Authority that helped doom our efforts in Iraq.
The problems didnt start with Roigs tenure. A 2003 internal inspector generals report slammed the offices leaders for failing to follow standard contracting procedures, employing inappropriate hiring practices, and overpaying contractors. The report also found that OCB lacked programming quality control structures, noting that the offices director at the time, Salvador Lew, had dismissed the internal committee designed to review new programs.
Nor is OCB required to show that Cubans are actually watching or listeningand it appears that few are. The Castro government blocks TV Marti, and much of the programming is glaringly unsophisticated: crude caricatures of the Havana leadership, for instance, or rambling monologues by Miami exiles. (The inspector general found that OCB was not using research or internal review mechanisms to guide its programming decisions.) One independent study found that only 9,000 Cubansor .08 percent of the total populationtune in to the channels.
OCB has never been a model of efficiency, but at least during the 1990s it operated with some federal oversight. A high-level presidential advisory board convened regularly throughout the Clinton years. But according to the inspector generals report, the board has not met since Bush took office. And the Chicago Tribune recently reported that one person listed as a current member, Charles Tyroler, actually died in 1995.
Under Bush, OCB has developed into an assembly line of pork that rewards the most virulently anti-Castro activists, and helps keep Miamis Cubans in the presidents camp, while doing little to increase U.S. influence in Cuba. Its a political patronage organization, says one Cuban American leader. People [in Miami] wont attack Cuba policy because they are on the government dole.
Still, none of these glaring problems have prevented OCBs growth since Bush became president. In 2006, the administration and the GOP-led Congress poured some $37 million into the office, a $10 million increase from the previous year. (The new Democratic Congress recently announced its intention to hold hearings investigating mismanagement and corruption at OCB.)
The offices ineffectiveness is symptomatic of the broader failure of the Bush administrations Cuba policy. Since 2001, the United States has applied its ideological obsession with confrontation to the government in Havana, discarding the Clinton administrations approach of cautious engagement and returning instead to a regime change policy championed by Floridas hardest-line anti-Castro Cuban Americans. Even worse, despite the stirring rhetoric, the policy has often appeared more focused on maintaining Cuban American political support in Florida than on bringing genuine change to Cuba. All this talk about getting tougher on Cuba, but then all the money spent is just political pork in Miami, says the same Cuban American leader.
In other words, the Bush approach has been determined by a mixture of neoconservative doctrine and the cold calculations of domestic politics. The result has been an ineffective policy that has reduced Americas ability to influence events on an island just ninety miles off the coast of Floridaand at the crucial moment when a weakening Fidel is attempting to hand off power to his brother Raul. That loss of influence has damaged American interests in Cubaperhaps compromising national securityand has undercut the United States ability to help the Cuban people create a more open, democratic country. Says the Cuban American leader: The chance for helping real change is quickly disappearing.
Since the failure of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasionin which the Kennedy administration tried to overthrow Castros government by arming an invasion force of Cuban exilesU.S.-Cuba relations have largely been characterized by American trade sanctions and an intense mutual distrust. But when the Soviet Union broke up, leaving Cuba isolated, Fidel Castro was forced to change course. He opened up the economy by allowing limited private enterprise, and began to adopt a somewhat less confrontational stance toward the West.
At the same time, Washington responded to the end of the cold war by actively rebuilding ties with communist nations, like Vietnam, that had human rights records as poor as Cubas. And many in the Clinton administration argued that taking the same approach with Cubaby encouraging foreign travel, economic assistance, and a broader relationship with the United Stateswould increase the flow of ideas into and out of Cuba, and would strengthen democratic activists on the island.
As a result, during the 1990s, Washington and Havana began a cautious process of rapprochement. The Clinton administration stepped up agricultural trade with Cuba, helping to open the Cuban economy while simultaneously pleasing American farmers. Though limited by congressional restrictions, the White House also loosened bans on cash remittances and travel to Cuba, and began to allow direct flights to the island, in an effort to increase the spread of information to average Cubans. It also initiated cooperation with Havana on bilateral issues like migration and drug trafficking.
As the decade wore on, a rough consensus emerged in favor of this policy, and of still more engagement, even among some conservatives. Daniel Fisk, now the senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs on the National Security Council, was a Cuba expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation during the Clinton administration. In a 2001 essay in the Washington Quarterly, he argued for even greater openness, urging the administration to allow increased American investment in, and travel to, Cuba. As CEO of Halliburton during that same time, Dick Cheney supported USA*Engage, a lobbying group funded by multinational corporations advocating the removal of sanctions on Cuba and other countries. And even in the Cuban American communityusually depicted as monolithically opposed to any suggestion of engagement or compromise with Castros regimethe policy enjoyed significant support.
This strategy also showed signs of paying off in Cuba itself. The more moderate U.S. policy made it harder for Castros government to paint internal dissident movements as stooges of the West. As a result, groups like the Varela Project, which used petition-gathering campaigns to push for political reforms, eventually grew in prominence and visibility. Meanwhile, Cuba responded to the U.S. overture by carrying out some limited internal reforms, including further economic liberalization, greater freedom for writers and intellectuals, and slightly looser rules on travel. Washington and Havana even hammered out an agreement on Cuban refugees.
Then came the 2000 election, in which Floridas Cuban American population played a key role in muscling Bush into office. Cubans gave Bush 82 percent of their votesaround 250,000 more votes than they gave Al Gorein an election ultimately decided by 537 votes. The Republicans knew they won Florida because of Cubans, says the Cuban American leader.
It wasnt just any Cubans, though. Bush received significant financial support from older, more conservative anti-Castro activistsmany of whom fled the island as children or young adults after Castro came to power and still hope one day to return.
And the presence of these activists at street demonstrations during the postelection battlein response to appeals from local Cuban American GOP members of Congresswas crucial in halting the recounts the Bush campaign feared.
As a result, once in office, the new president found himself deeply indebted to the most extreme anti-Castro elements of Miamis Cuban community. And as his administration developed a Cuba policy, those hard-liners got their reward. Soon after taking office, Bush began to reverse the Clinton administrations course. Pressured by the Cuban GOP representatives to whom he in part owed his presidencymembers like Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and vehement anti-Castro activiststhe White House set about changing many of the Clinton policies designed to cautiously engage the Castro regime.
It also created the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which it touted as an advisory body intended to provide an objective assessment of Cuba policy. In fact, though, the commission was comprised primarily of Bush cabinet officials and consulted few outside experts or Cuban American groups that did not already support a hard-line policy. They went to one place, and they talked amongst themselves, says Philip Peters, a Cuba expert at the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank. They explicitly only discussed it in Congress with Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart or others like them.
According to Mark Falcoff, a Cuba expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, when it came time to discuss policy options, participants only chose from a range of ways to increase pressure on Fidel; continuing moderate engagement was not on the table. Another Cuba specialist who interacted with the commission (and requested anonymity in speaking to the Washington Monthly because the commissions proceedings were not intended to be made public) says it was not interested in examining the difficult aspects of change in Cuba, like potential unrest and the chance of a post-Fidel government not immediately becoming democratic. Yet studies by the Cuba Transition Project at the University of Miami and many other experts had warned of just these dangers. They are just picturing there would be a great future government in Cuba, the Cuba specialist says. (This was hardly the only example, one might note, of the Bush White House simply assuming that regime change in a foreign dictatorship would necessarily lead to a stable liberal democracy.)
Given how the administration gamed the commission, the report it produced was predictable. The commission recommended tightening regulations on family visits to Cuba and generally cracking down on travel. It also drew up plans to essentially manage the post-Fidel transition from Washington. The United States, it proposed, could help oversee the transformation of Cubas political system, the privatization of Cuban industries, the possible transfer of property to returning exiles, and even the management of Cuban programs like national retirement funds and traffic-safety initiatives.
Bush quickly implemented the commissions suggestions, upping the budget for programs to broadcast anti-Castro messages into Cuba, cracking down on companies trading with the country, slashing the amount of money Cuban Americans could send back to their families, and reducing their visits to Cuba to only once every three yearseven if they had sick relatives. Bush appointed a transition coordinator, Caleb McCarry, a former Hill aide and longtime democracy advocate, who became a kind of proconsul in waiting, working out of the State Department. McCarry was put in charge of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba and was empowered to help determine the direction of U.S. efforts to hasten a democratic transition in Cuba.
In an interview, McCarry says that tough Bush administration policies, like restrictions on travel and remittances, were designed to isolate and weaken the Castro regime. He argues that the administration understands that it cannot impose a direction on Cubas future, but that it can use tools like financial aid and broadcast media to support reformers. But his very appointment has been viewed with trepidation by many Cuban dissidents, who worry that the United States establishment of a transition coordinator has been perceived by ordinary Cubans as unwelcome foreign meddling. Caleb McCarrys position is an absurd one, says Wayne Smith, a former U.S. diplomat in Cuba. In Iraq at least we waited to invade the country before appointing a transition coordinator.
But an ideological tilt toward confrontation has been only part of the problem. The White House has also appeared to view Cuba policy as a means of rewarding its political supporters, and it has given those supporters a virtual free hand to run many of the programs as they see fit. In addition to the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, the administration distributes much of its pro-democracy programming through USAID, an operation that makes Radio and TV Marti look like well-oiled machines.
The USAID funding supports an industry of Cuban American contractors in Miami. Even by the standards of the aid agency, which often takes a hands-off approach to overseeing its contractors, the Cuban programs operate with strikingly little accountability. According to a devastating Government Accountability Office report released in November, USAID handed out 95 percent of its contracts without competitive bidding, and kept little documentation of what its grantees did with the money. Little wonder, then, that, according to the GAO report, some recipients of USAID money in Miami mixed it with their personal accounts, or spent the funds on items that likely will do little to help topple the Castroslike cashmere sweaters, Sony Playstations, and imported chocolates.
Despite this mismanagement, the Bush administration has made the USAID programming a central part of its effort to bring democracy to Cuba. In 2006, it poured over $7 million into USAID programming on democracy and governance in Cubaa significant increase from the Clinton years. And it recently vowed to increase USAID funding again. You see no attempt, not one word, to take a critical look at the program, says Peter Orr, a former senior USAID official. Its not hard to understand why. By funneling money to the contractors, the organization has helped to ensure the support of the Cuban American community, and to discourage activist groups from questioning the administration policy. No one will say anything, because Cuban groups are getting paid by USAID, says the Cuban American leader.
On the island itself, where all this new pressure was supposed to lead to greater openness and increased American influence, the Bush policies have had exactly the opposite result. The embargo still has little impact on Cubas economy, which, supported by cheap oil from Venezuela and aid from China, grew by around 8 percent in 2005, the latest figures available. Meanwhile, the White Houses focus on regime change has worried many Cubans, who fear the kind of chaos and violence that has occurred in Iraq, and the possibility of Cuban exiles returning to the island to reclaim their property. The commission report increased fear of change, says Peters of the Lexington Institute. And it was rejected even by Cubans who want change because it explicitly threatened peoples homes and health care and education.
The Bush policy also strengthened hard-liners in the Havana regime, who can use the White Houses statements, and the history of U.S. intervention in Cuba, as motivation for keeping Cuba closed and xenophobic. In recent years, Castros government has increased roundups of democracy activists, prompting the Cuban journalist Miriam Leiva to note in Salon in 2004 that American support for the dissidents, however well intentioned, helped land them in jail.
In addition, many dissidents have begun to shy away from associating with the United States, and some have publicly voiced their frustration with American efforts. Elizardo Sanchez, who leads the Cuban Commission of Human Rights and National Reconciliationthe countrys most prominent human rights monitoring grouptold the Chicago Tribune last summer, This [U.S. policy] is putting gasoline on the fire. This is fuel for the Cuban governments propaganda. And even Owaldo Paya, leader of the Varela Project, has publicly warnedreferring to the reports put out by the White Houses Committee for Assistance to a Free CubaWe do not accept transition programs made outside of Cuba.
Most important, as Fidel nears his final hour, the Bush administrations failed policy has only made it easier for him to hand over power to his younger brother. Since Fidel fell ill last summerU.S. officials suggest he suffers from terminal cancer, though Castros Spanish doctor has denied this, saying he has a serious gastric conditionRaul has consolidated his hold on Havana, making high-profile visits to Cuban military bases and giving public speeches on the future of Cuban politics. Even though many Cuba experts, like former CIA officer Brian Latell, had warned that Raul would probably face little initial opposition within the country, his takeover has seemed to surprise U.S. officials. The U.S. prepared for the least likely scenario, a democratic revolution, and didnt prepare for the most likely, a gradual handover, says Daniel Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, Washingtons leading Latin America think tank.
Recently, though, there have been some signs of a more nuanced approach from the White House. This summer, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon, considered a moderate career diplomat, announced that the United States should have patience as it waits for reform in Cuba, and suggested lifting U.S. sanctions if Havana institutes political reformsa shift that appeared to recognize the fact that the earlier hard-line approach had only alienated Cubans. U.S. diplomats in Cubawhere America, in lieu of a proper embassy, has an Interests Section in the Swiss embassyhave also recently tried to rebuild relations with dissidents. And in August, Bush himself declared that Cubans on the island would decide their future government, a departure from the idea of a U.S.-supported transitionand a position seconded by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
But administration hard-liners, backed by the Cuban American GOP members of Congress, are still helping to dictate policy. As a result, in recent months, the White House has failed to exploit an unprecedented opportunity to improve ties with the island. Though Raul has a history of brutality, he appears to be more of a pragmatist than his brother, and some Cuba specialists believe hes been trying to offer an olive branch to Washington. In a speech in early December celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban revolution, Raul declared, We are willing to resolve at the negotiating table the long-standing dispute between the United States and Cuba. Raul reached out, says Marifeli Perez-Stable of the Inter-American Dialogue. It behooves the U.S. to explore this. Raul also has hinted he may pursue economic liberalization; in the 1990s, he traveled to China to study Beijings reforms, and praised the idea of market economics. But Washington has not seized the chance to engage Raul; the White House barely responded to his December speech.
The failure to engage Raul could damage U.S. interests. As America remains on the outside, its rivals for influence in Cuba have made inroads. Under Hugo Chvez, Venezuela has become Cubas major patron, and a reliable source of aid. And China, which has long cultivated relations with Raul, is now Cubas second-largest trading partner, which could give Beijing access to Cubas potential oil and gas reserves, and influence over the future direction of Cubas political system. The failure of the White Houses Cuba policy could also compromise U.S. security. According to University of Miami professor June Teufel Dreyer, testifying before a House committee, China recently set up an eavesdropping facility at a site south of Havana, with the goal of tracking U.S. phone and computer communications.
Even more disturbing, Americas lack of political influence in Cuba could leave it powerless to prevent a poorly managed post-Fidel transition. Despite the seeming ease with which Raul is taking the reins, the prospect of instability upon Castros death is not outlandish, and the Bush administrations failed policy has reduced our ability to ensure things go smoothly. That could mean trouble. In the event of a violent political struggle or economic meltdown in Cuba, wed be left with no good options. In 1994, chaos in Haitia less populous country than Cuba, and one thats geographically and culturally further from the United Stateseventually forced a reluctant President Clinton to intervene. But today, thanks to its outsize footprint, the United States is already feared and hated around the world. Even a well-intentioned Cuban intervention would hardly improve Americas global image. Conversely, if the U.S. stayed out, the chaos might well lead to a refugee crisis that could overburden or destabilize parts of south Florida, with potentially catastrophic results. (Last December, top administration officials, including Rice and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, met to consider this very possibility, and to review policy in case of a mass exodus.) For the Bush administration, which has always approached Cuba policy with an eye as much on Miami as Havana, such a disaster would represent the ultimate grim irony.
Joshua Kurlantzick is special correspondent for the New Republic. His new book, Charm Offensive: How Chinas Soft Power Is Transforming the World, will be out in April.