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

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More importantly than that, we have to get into the politics of both parties. It's not so cut and dried. What the White House has lost is House Republican leadership that will strip embargo-loosening legislation in conference and abide by the veto threat from the White House. So that alliance is gone and it creates a space or an opening for change. The new Democratic Party leadership will be more likely to allow debate and legislation to move forward.
CA: Who are the new players on Capitol Hill?
Sweig: Let's break it down by party, and then by House of Representatives and the Senate.
In the post—Cold War era, when the debates first started on the merits of the Cuban embargo, you had a kind of anti-sanctions coalition that was backed by agriculture and the manufacturing industry and backed partially by tourism and telecommunications. It was not only focused on Cuba, but on sanctions as a foreign policy tool. The question was whether they work, whether they don't. It took place in the wake of South Africa, and it was really about Libya and Pakistan and all of the other countries subject to sanctions. Cuba had different kinds of sanctions on it.
But the voices that care about the Western Hemisphere include Sen. Christopher Dodd [D-CT]. In the early 1990s, Dodd was chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and continues to have that role. Dodd has been very important as a liberal critic of U.S. policy toward Cuba, a critic of wars in Central America, and as such, he has been vilified by some on the right in Congress and the press for the roles he has played. But I would say Dodd is probably the most important voice of the early anti-sanction school.
Sen. Richard Lugar [R-IN), a Republican, has carried the anti-sanction flag strongly throughout the 1990s. He has been and continues to be somebody who is a voice of moderation within the Republican Party.
Then, you have the Cuban-American representatives in the House: Lincoln Diaz-Balart [R-FL), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen [R-FL] and [until recently] Bob Menendez [D-NJ]. Menendez is now in the Senate, and you have Albio Sires [D-NJ], who took his seat in the House. But the Lincoln-Ileana axis, the hard-liners, has been very, very important with both a Republican and Democratic White House. Now we also have Mario Diaz [R-FL], Lincoln's little brother, who is also in the Congress.
There's Charles Rangel [D-NY], in the Congressional Black Caucus, which has had a traditionally more open view toward Cuba for a variety of reasons. Rangel epitomizes that attitude.
Because of the anti-sanction drumbeat in the 1990s, and because the Cold War ended, a bunch of new domestic constituencies got involved in the debate on Cuba. In the agricultural field, most especially, you saw the first anti-sanction agricultural bill sponsored by [then] Sen. John Ashcroft [R-MO]. That was surely not an ideological gesture on his part; it was for campaign finances from his constituents.
You had people like Norm Coleman [R-MN) when he came into the Senate after Paul Wellstone died. Coleman, when he was mayor of St. Paul, was participating in delegations to Cuba because he had constituents in Minnesota who were interested in the country.
What essentially happened was the Clinton administration used the loopholes in the Cuban Democracy Act [editor's note: a bill introduced by then-Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) in 1992 that prohibited any foreign-based subsidiary of a U.S. company from doing business with Cuba] to begin to drive a bottom-up process where you would get different constituents interested in Cuba that would have the effect of neutralizing, in theory, the Cuban-American hard line within and outside the Congress. And it was successful.
By the end of the 1990s, you had 200,000 Americans going to Cuba a year. Every other second there was an ad for an international trade show. Cigar Aficionado did its interview with Fidel. The message from the Cubans was, "Damn, we may be well interested in opening for business." It was tentative, but they were playing footsies with us right back.
In the Congress, Coleman comes in but changes hats because he has to get in line with Karl Rove's White House.
Then you have Mel Martinez. He's an Orlando councilman in real estate development from Orlando, Florida. When Elián González [the Cuban boy who fled Cuba but then sparked a custodial fight involving his father in Cuba] went to Disney World, that was Martinez's entry into national politics. He became secretary of [Housing and Urban Development] and then a senator, handpicked by Karl Rove. It was very much about domestic politics and his role in that whole Elián González episode. Martinez, now also the chair of the Republican National Committee, may be among those Republican Cuban Americans close to the White House who might support restoring Cuban-American family travel, and not much else.
CA: Isn't that a fairly big shift in itself?
Sweig: Yes. Family travel was all but eliminated in 2004. But it was politically damaging to the Republican Party. They lost 14 percent of the Cuban-American vote in Florida by comparison to 2000 against the Democratic candidate, John Kerry, who took a moderate position in support of Cuban-American and people-to-people contact.
But there is some possible bipartisan movement in the Senate to remove the travel bans.
In general, however, the Republican view is this is a regime that absolutely ought to be changed. Democrats are not necessarily sympathetic to a 50-year authoritarian regime, but are a little bit more eager to, or ready to criticize, the hypocrisy of U.S. policy and the failures of U.S. policy in Latin America. They see Cuba as a symbol that is a leftover Cold War policy. They would argue for following the model of Eastern Europe and other formally closed societies, that the best way to bring openness internally is openness externally.
For reasons that I think have to do with the domestic politics of the issue, any hearings will start in the House of Representatives. They will address hot-button issues to take the Bush administration to task over issues like the fact that Luis Posada Carrilles, who is a terrorist, is being held on immigration charges but could, in principle, be released at any time. [Editor's note: Posada Carrilles is accused of being involved in the bombing of a Cubana Airlines plane in 1976.] He is a terrorist and needs to be treated as a terrorist. That's going to get a hearing.
Another hot button is the General Accounting Office report that just came out and shows that the lion's share of the money that is spent for a democracy promotion program just goes to the Miami-based anti-Castro cottage industry. It pales in comparison to Iraq, but for tiny little Cuba it embodies everything that's wrong with the policy. They will have hearings on that.
They may also have hearings on why Cuba is on the State Department's list of terrorist countries.
Then, Congress will have hearings on the overall merits of the policy on the travel ban. The travel ban is seen as the jewel in the crown. If you get rid of the travel ban, if you want to talk about a house of cards, the whole house of cards of U.S. policy collapses. Because that means that Americans, not just the two of us, go down there and see for themselves that Cuba is a real country, but not some boogeyman that we need to isolate and beat up.
In that context, you get the tourism industry pushing politically and then really, it's over. The travel ban will get a hearing, but my guess is because of the domestic politics of the issue, even the Democrats will be hesitant to push for much more than restoring Cuban-American family travel, as a first step. And then they'll give that some time to make itself felt. They will do something more after the 2008 election.
Domestic politics, and this relates back to Florida, could slow the progress toward a change. Although the Cuban American National Foundation is not dead yet, there is at least one Democrat who is a member of its board, and he has made it very clear to his party that the swing vote in Florida is up for grabs. He wants the Democratic Party to believe that if his party goes too fast on the Cuban embargo, they will have a big political price to pay. But I'm not sure of that anymore.
CA: Is that still true even though many Cuban Americans today are second- or even third-generation and they feel differently than their parents or grandparents, who came here after the revolution?
Sweig: I would be the first person to argue—and am the first person to argue—that it is time we make changes. But the Cuban-American community, even though in terms of age demographics and passion, it is a much different community than it was 10 years ago during the heyday of the Cuban American National Foundation, there is not a consensus for a huge overhaul of U.S. policy toward Cuba. What also isn't clear is whether the rest of the constituents in the country can offset the views of the Cuban-American community.
Does it make sense to allow a small percentage of a small population of one group in our country to continue to set the tone and pace of our foreign policy? No, of course not. Everybody gets that. There's nobody that doesn't. If you had a secret vote today in the Congress, there would be a majority voting to end the embargo tomorrow. Sixty-six percent of the American public supports that result.
So the real game is, are there some face-saving measures for the Cuban-American community? And, then there has to be broader domestic political public support for an overhaul. That depends on everything else. You know Cuba is not likely to come up for extensive debate in Washington with the other issues facing the country right now. My view is that it is a low-stakes issue. Precisely because of the stability in Cuba in the last six months, there is no urgency in changing anything, especially rapidly.
CA: With what is happening across Latin America, with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and, just recently, Daniel Ortega winning the presidency in Nicaragua, how does that affect the U.S.-Cuba situation?
Sweig: Sure, it has an effect. But if it were up to me, the smartest way to neutralize the Ortega-Chavez-Morales-Castro grouping—I'm not going to call it an axis—would be to start picking them off. The bottom line is that the vulnerability of the revolutionary project in Cuba will depend in part on Raúl Castro carving out a better material life for the people. The way to deliver a better material life is to tie the Cuban market to the American market, not necessarily overnight, but over time.
Moreover, Cubans love Americans and we have what President William McKinley called ties of a singular intimacy with Cuba. So there would be an enormous domestic benefit inside of Cuba to finally putting this enmity aside. It has to be done correctly. But [the Cubans] could keep a lot of what they have with Venezuela—the money and the oil—and still find a modus vivendi with the United States.
But that way of seeing things assumes America still has leverage and influence in this hemisphere. What it looks like is that we have increasingly less of it.
On the one hand, I think Washington is looking at Latin America a bit more seriously under the second term of the Bush administration, including the president's [recent] trip to the region. That's true even with the situation in Iraq. You have had a dozen senior senators going to Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Now that, I think, is remarkable, because Latin America is the region of the world that most graphically demonstrates how far afield the United States has gone in terms of its reputation and its standing. And, it's the region of the world where the United States could most easily recover its standing.
Cuba is such a symbol of that, that we would get an enormous benefit, a huge gain symbolically and substantively, from just putting this Cuba issue to bed within the region. We really ought to. George Bush has nothing to lose whatsoever by looking at the important parts of his own party and in his own state of Texas. The energy, agricultural and tourism industries would applaud a move like this.
But the decider made a decision when he came into office to fight for freedom and democracy in Cuba. I can't see him walking away from that decision, just like he's not walking away from other far more catastrophic decisions he has made in foreign affairs.
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