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Cuba's Future: An Interview with Julia Sweig

A top policy analyst in Washington talks about Cuba today, a post-Fidel Castro regime, key players on the U.S. side and new ideas for changes in America's approach toward its island neighbor
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007

(continued from page 1)

The current situation does not surprise me because my sense of what makes that country, and that nation and that revolution, tick is that it is a lot more than just about Fidel and Raúl and repression. It's the nationalism of Cubans that the regime plays up, and that the U.S. helps to feed. It is one of the fundamental sources of legitimacy that has been cultivated and sustained over the last 50 years. So was I surprised? No.

Moreover, in Washington, there is a very funny, paradoxical frame of mind. On the one hand, the United States sees itself as sort of the überpower. We have crafted a policy meant to topple the regime, always assuming that we are capable of toppling Cuba despite all of the evidence to the contrary. On the other hand, the very policy makers and individuals within the policy community—the Congress and intelligence agencies that have by and large supported this current status quo—seem to underestimate the power of U.S. policy inside Cuba, and our effect on their domestic politics.

There are a number of internal factors, however, that help explain why Cuba didn't explode or implode. The big external reason why it didn't implode is because of the circling-of-the-wagons mentality that dominates Cuba. The cadre that runs the country and the population at large, when confronted with hostility from the United States, which they have come to expect, circles the wagons. And we for some reason underestimate that as a factor in sustaining the revolution.

CA: Does that mean that the U.S. government and the American people don't really know what's going on in Cuba?

Sweig: By and large, the answer is that we are totally isolated from them. In the last six months, from Fidel's illness to the end of January, it is my very strong guess that there's been no contact. There is no back channel. There is not even a minimum contact, except for the gate in Guantánamo. There has been no initiative undertaken directly by the Bush administration to reach out to the collective leadership that Raúl now leads.

You have to go back to the shoot-down in 1996 of the Brothers to the Rescue planes, after which there was a period of limited contact. Then, leading up to the papal visit in 1998, the Clinton administration and the Cuban government began to resurrect some of the official and unofficial, and formal and informal, ties.

Under President Bush, most of the official contact stopped almost immediately, although we kept meeting with the Cubans for immigration talks. We had those bilateral immigration meetings twice a year since 1994 until about 2002 and then the Bush administration cut them off in 2003.

Those talks represented two opportunities a year when the Cubans would send up a pretty high-level group, headed often by Ricardo Alarcon (see interview, page 62). Our delegation was less senior, but that was always an opportunity. Those ended. Then, family travel was cut off, remittances were cut off and the people-to-people contact was cut off and all the cultural stuff was cut off, and all that was left was the agricultural trade that Congress had voted on and the President approved.

The United States government has been totally isolated from the key cast of characters probably for lots of different reasons that have to do with those assumptions we are talking about and because of domestic politics here. Certainly, Iraq played a role because it made Cuba a low-stakes issue. If you are a senior policy maker in Washington, why are you going to blow your wad on an issue like Cuba? In fact, why are you going to blow your wad on an issue like Latin America? So, there's been very little to be gained by messing with Cuba.

But now the Bush administration has been forced to confront a potential major change on their hands. And what's interesting is that the very stability of the last six months has reinforced that policy inertia that has existed for the entire Bush administration.

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