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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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When President Castro fell ill last summer, her knowledge of Cuban society and her contacts with the country's top government officials made her an indispensable source about what the consequences might be for both Cuba and the United States. Sweig is the Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and the director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She was born in Chicago, graduated from the University of California-Santa Cruz and earned her Masters and PhD at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins.
She is the author of Inside the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro and the Urban Underground, and Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century. She authored a piece in the January/February 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs titled Fidel's Final Victory about the impending transition in Cuba in the wake of Castro's illness. She sat down with Cigar Aficionado's executive editor, Gordon Mott, in Washington earlier this year to discuss the current conditions in Cuba and the state of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Cigar Aficionado: Has there been a transfer of power inside the Cuban government since President Fidel Castro became sick last July?
Sweig: Yes. In fact, it started before Fidel's illness was even announced. But from the summer of 2006 to now, that transition is well under way.
Going back to before his illness, really over the last 10 or 15 years since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Fidel has been repopulating the bureaucracy with a second and third and now fourth generation of officials. That's happened in all Cuban institutions. Not necessarily in the top leadership positions, but in the workaday ranks of the bureaucracy. It was at least 10 years ago that the original revolutionary barbudos [the bearded ones] were sent to pasture and young people were brought in to all levels of government.
By the time you get to his illness in 2006, within the politburo, within the national assembly, within the counsel of ministers and within the Communist Party, you have these second, third and fourth generations running the country. That list includes Raúl Castro, but there were a number of newer people too.
When provisional power was transferred to half a dozen colleagues, half of them were old school who had been with Raúl and Fidel in the mountains in the 1950s and the other half [were those] who really cut their professional and political teeth in the 1990s. That's why, at the leadership level, the process of training and running the country post-Fidel had already begun. The government was able to simply continue the status quo with what these people had learned to do under Fidel and now are doing without him.
CA: What does that mean for the Cuban people?
Sweig: The conventional wisdom has always been that Cuba was a house of cards that was based on the charisma and repression of Fidel and Raúl, and that those qualities were what kept things in place. When [Fidel] goes, the theory went, the whole thing blows.
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.
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.
You have also a potential vulnerability. Go back to 1996 after the shoot-down of the planes. That incident was a product of anxious Cuban-American exiles who were worried that the White House and the Cuban government were going to cut a deal. The exiles wanted to provoke some sort of military confrontation to derail that process.
Although that cast of characters is weaker 10 years later than it was in the '90s, the fact is that we have no senior-level communication, the fact is that we have no back channels, and that means that the day that Fidel does die, if there is an effort at a flotilla toward Cuba or a refugee exodus toward the United States, there's no contact to help resolve it. The current status quo may be enough: we worry about our security, the Cubans worry about their security, and anything that falls through the cracks will hopefully not create a crisis that can't be managed.
CA: Doesn't a political vacuum like that create a higher risk?
Sweig: It's not just that. The foreign policy leadership vacuum creates a vulnerability. We are now legally in a position where for the guts of our policy to change, Congress has to make those changes.
Our November 2006 elections were important, however. Before those elections, you already had a kind of latent bipartisan majority that supported change. Now we have a congressional leadership which by and large does as well.
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.
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