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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 2)

The events of the last six months have changed a lot of things, including some of the fundamental assumptions about the situation inside Cuba. If you read the testimony of John Negroponte and the deputy director of the DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] to the Senate Intelligence Committee in January, at least the public parts, it is a pretty significant example of just how isolated we have been and how we have misread Cuba's domestic policy. The testimony of these two men basically says we expect stability inside Cuba to continue.

CA: Haven't State Department officials also gone on the record saying that the Cuban people must be the catalyst for any political change?

Sweig: That's true. The other thing is there's a deafening silence from this administration, or maybe it's an admission of failure. There is nobody in this administration that defends the current policy, other than Carlos Gutierrez, the secretary of commerce, who was born in Havana. With the exception of an occasional statement by him, they don't defend it publicly. They don't defend it privately, at all. I mean, I have debated top administration officials, but it hasn't been very challenging to win an argument with them.

CA: But it was just a few years ago that the State Department, under then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, released a 600-page document outlining how to manage a transition in a post-Fidel Cuba, the report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. To any reader, it was a virtual repetition of everything the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami has been saying for years, wasn't it?

Sweig: Since then, the Cuban American National Foundation is severely weakened. But with men like Roger Noriega, who was in place at the time of that report in the State Department, those ideas had a supporter. Noriega was and is a true believer. He came out of Sen. Jesse Helms's office and was an author of the [1996] Helms-Burton Act. [Editor's note: Helms-Burton imposed tighter sanctions on Cuba and placed the authorization for the trade embargo in the Congress.] He and Otto Reich [a former State Department official] were focused on the most ideological touch points of the hemisphere: Haiti, Venezuela and Cuba. And that has radically changed.

Cuba has been lowered as a priority. It's now almost solely the province of domestic politics. You once had people talking about how the United States can support a transition to democracy and throwing around buzz words like regime change. But outside of Miami, that stuff is not taken seriously. In Havana, it still is taken seriously, but nowhere else.

CA: Going back to 2002, do you trace that cutoff of all contact at that point to that Reich-Noriega group inside the Bush administration?

Sweig: Absolutely. They didn't make this decision themselves. It had to have been something that was approved by Colin Powell and Richard Armitage [deputy secretary of state at the time], even if they disagreed at some level. I wouldn't put words in their mouth, but you don't know really where Powell probably stood on this. At his confirmation hearings, Powell made some statements to the effect [about] Cuba having been quite successful in dealing with major development issues like health care. And he was forced to back down immediately. So my view is that people like Reich and Noriega were just allowed to run with it. Plus, in preparing for the 2004 elections, Karl Rove wanted to secure the Hispanic vote and saw cracking down on Cuba, and even cutting off Cuban-American travel and remittances, as one way to strengthen Bush's return with Hispanics and especially [Cuban Americans].

CA: Does that mean that after 2002 and the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, no one has had any oversight over U.S.-Cuba policy?

Sweig: No, because when we started the war in Iraq, that's when a marginal issue gets run by marginal people. But one result is that there's been a lot of stability in Cuba. And the United States has the Cuban government to thank for that stability.


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