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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 6)

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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