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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

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Frankly, you know, I think that domestic politics will always come back to the front of this issue. But on the foreign policy front, since Cuba has continued to be so stable since Fidel's illness, why should they fix what ain't broke?
On the domestic politics front you do take a big risk as a party to really shake things up. Even if you wanted to, it would be hard. I remember at the end of the Clinton administration, there were some noises coming out of the secretary of state's office about what kind of bold moves could be made with respect to Cuba, and that was about legacy. I guess President Bush might be looking for legacy issues. But his family has some ties with the Cuban hard-liners that I can't see him wanting to touch that.
CA: Correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't he have limited options for any executive decisions to change U.S. policy, especially in regard to the embargo?
Sweig: I would argue that there are plenty of loopholes within Helms-Burton. It is fact that right now he can't make the embargo go away. That's codified by Helms-Burton. That takes congressional action.
But Raúl Castro has now said twice, and the second statement is stronger than the first: We are ready to negotiate anything but our own survival. A clever White House looking at the Latin American panorama, looking at the domestic politics, would potentially look at that and say, "Goodness, what might we be able to talk with the Cubans about and what kind of rabbit could we pull out of the hat here?"
The Cubans want access to our markets. We share a bunch of security issues that are generally untended to in the Straits of Florida. There's oil drilling in Cuban territory in the Gulf of Mexico. Is there any sort of environmental preparation that the two countries are planning on the cleanup front?
There are security issues. There are terrorism issues. There's port security. There's bilateral issues that we could, and should, be talking with them. It wouldn't imply that we like their system or that we reward Raúl. It's straight national security stuff. Who knows? By the virtue of a gesture of that nature, that would send a political signal to Congress that perhaps the White House was willing to stand back while the Congress ushered in more significant legislation and the embargo. In this sort of dynamic, face-saving measures for Cuba's leaders would be critical too.
CA: Is there anybody in the White House that's promoting that message?
Sweig: They have designated Carlos Gutierrez, the secretary of commerce, to be the senior person in this administration and a number of other people in the State Department, senior-level career foreign service people, to speak on this. They and the bureaucracy made a big deal out of their success in marginalizing the Cuban hard-liners in the Congress.
But honestly I don't think there is any energy at the White House for a big Cuba policy shift.
CA: How does the United States need to change its approach to Cuba?
Sweig: The gist of the public messages from the United States is: "Become something you are not and then we'll talk. Commit political suicide and we'll talk." Like Iran and North Korea, the Cuban regime doesn't respond to that. What incentive do they have?
I've talked a little bit about how an opening with the United States would benefit Cuba. They lived with the hostility long enough that they've gotten used to it. And frankly, with all this Venezuelan oil wealth, the political economy they are managing today is different than it was four or five years ago when the Cuban government invested an enormous amount in lobbying in this country to get an opening. They were treated horribly, and along came Chavez who has just been reelected. So they don't have the same incentive today to move too quickly.
This second Bush administration, despite more skillful public statements, has continued to work very hard to damage the Cuban regime through sanctions. There has been a mandate to clamp down on the enforcement of travel violations and they really have. And they've continued to look at ways of restricting Cuba's financial flow in the international financial system.
There has been no retreat in the enforcement of economic sanctions. There has been a retreat in the kind of language used but not in the enforcement area. The Office of Foreign Assets Control in recent years seems to be have vigorously enforced the embargo against Cuba even though there are greater terrorist threats out there in the world.
CA: How would you define an ideal, new U.S. policy toward Cuba?
Sweig: I would reinstate all of the executive regulations that were instituted in 1999 and 2000 that allowed not only Cuban Americans but Americans with academic, cultural, educational and humanitarian interests to travel to Cuba under license and to send remittances and spend money in Cuba. That could be done today by executive fiat, immediately.
Second, on the legislative front, I would move to get rid of the travel ban. It's the jewel in the crown and for that reason it won't happen overnight. That's a serious amount of heavy political lifting that would have to take place.
I don't think that ending the travel ban is important so that American tourists can go to Cuba. I think it is important because with more Americans going to Cuba freely, the kind of siege mentality that has entrapped the Cuban body politic will begin to lift. That's the kind of measure the United States can take to be helpful for Cuba's future. If you want to talk about a transition to a more open society, that signal coming from the most powerful country in the world is critical.
Third, on the bilateral front, we have a whole range of security issues that bilaterally have been largely neglected: narco trafficking, human smuggling, all the dark side of globalization and the transnational security threats. Cuba, geographically, is right in the center of the Caribbean basin, and has a huge coastline and needs resources and is favorably disposed to policing its waters. It is a conservative society and a conservative government that sees, as we did with the Gen. Arnoldo Ochoa incident in 1989, how destabilizing drugs and crime and corruption can be. [Editor's note: General Ochoa was executed for allegedly helping smuggle drug shipments from South America.] That's a natural alliance there for this or a Democratic administration.
The bilateral agenda on the security front, changes on the legislative front and in addition to the travel ban, I don't see any reason to have any economic sanctions whatsoever. We're not going to sell them security-related, high-technology stuff. That's not the issue. There's a whole universe of life between the two countries that needs to be nourished.
That's it in a nutshell.
Some critics will say that the agenda that I laid out rewards 50 years of repression and dictatorship, and the last thing that the United States should do when the revolution and the regime are vulnerable is help Raúl Castro. They say that will perpetuate him in power indefinitely.
I think we've seen the mistake borne out of personalizing our policy, whether it is around Fidel Castro, or Saddam Hussein. At this point, what Raúl Castro eats for breakfast, or lunch or dinner, and what wine he drinks, or the way officials live in Cuba, is not of concern. What is of concern is that the political space inside Cuba begin to open. The only shot that the United States has, and it's not necessarily going to change anything, is to signal that we are not interested in the leadership; in fact, we are interested in the people.
Of course, all of that assumes that the Cuban government wants or would be a willing and interested participant. It's not clear to me that is the case. I mean despite Raúl's statements, this is an environment where the embargo and the hostility give the Cuban government a buffer and the shelter it needs to make the transition without the exposure to the United States that this kind of openness agenda would create.
But in a way it doesn't really matter. Although there is an embargo, the Cuban government trades and has ties with the rest of the world. But it is not an entirely open society. It picks who it wants to deal with, how and what foreign investment comes in. It will do that with the United States as well.
The agricultural purchases are a really good barometer of the strategic thinking coming out of the Cuban government, where you see political cherry-picking. I've asked these guys if they have a map of the United States deciding which company they are going to purchase from in order to embolden different members of the Congress. They laugh, and say, of course not. But I'm sure they do. They ought to. That kind of cherry-picking, as long as the nature of the regime remains as it is today, is going to continue.
But I think the important thing is the extent to which the Cuban government can use the hostility with the United States to justify repression and justify continuing to be a closed society.
CA: Do you see any signs that Raúl might have a different approach than his older brother?
Sweig: Raúl is 75. He looks like he is in good health. But he is clearly hyperconscious of his limited, temporary ability to make this thing stick. He gave a speech two or three weeks ago in which he said essentially, Let the debate begin. He said the country needs to have dissent and a real debate. The speech seemed to acknowledge that the old guys are leaving, and we are not going to be long on this earth, and a new generation is coming into power.
It looks like he is trying to shake up a generation of people who have been so accustomed to Fidel totally dominating politics there. They are used to that not just because of repression, but because of the status quo. That status quo needs to change. People need to be willing to get involved as citizens. That is their civic duty to invest in their future. And that's only the beginning of it. Raúl seems to be very cognizant of that, and clear that his legacy may well not be his amazing institutional building capacity, or his ruthlessness as a commander, but precisely his ability to get Cuba through the next five years.
In the 1980s, as perestroika and glasnost were just making themselves known to the West, Raúl was the one who started making the case to send people to Europe to learn how to run businesses, and to train the military bloc in operating private enterprises, and for opening up capitalist businesses and accounting practices. But you shouldn't get confused. While he clearly understands the importance of the dynamism of the market, you shouldn't think that makes him a liberal. It just makes him a pragmatist.
There's also Ricardo Alarcon, who has been the president of the National Assembly. He's been there almost 15 years. There will be new National Assembly elections in 2008, and it's possible Alarcon might have a new role after that.
But for now at least, and most importantly for managing the relationship with the United States, Alarcon is the point person, along with Fernando Ramirez, who was at the U.N. mission in New York and then was head of the Interest Section in Washington until about 2001. He is very important too. Ramirez went back to Cuba and was deputy foreign minister. He has been moved to run international relations at the central committee of the Communist Party, and he's one of the nine people who is a member of the newly resurrected Secretariat within the party. He's young. He started out as the president of the Federacion Estudiantile Universitaria [University Student Federation]. He is one of the people most responsible for putting the "responsible partner" face on the Cuban initiative in the 1990s to open up to the United States.
There's Carlos Lage, who is really the economic czar. And there's Felipe Perez Roque, who is the foreign minister. There has been lots of speculation about Lage's stewardship of the economy in the post-Fidel era. He's been very critical in defining what comes in vis-a-vis foreign investment. Perez Roque could be someone important, but it is just really hard to know.
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