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Cuba: What Everyone Needs To Know

Julia E. Sweig, is the Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin American Studies and Director for Latin American Studies the Council on Foreign Relations. Her most recent book, 9780195383805Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, is a concise and remarkably accessible portrait of the small island nation’s unique place on the world stage over the past fifty years. The book is presented in question and answer format and below we have excerpted a question about Cuba under the Bush administration.

What were the main features of U.S. policy toward Cuba under George W. Bush and how did Cuba respond?

As the United States entered the new millennium, Elián fatigue, embargo fatigue, and widespread annoyance with the domestic politics of the Cuba issue had helped create a bipartisan consensus in favor of dramatic policy change.  No one necessarily thought this would be easy…Still, the momentum for policy change continue into the next year, when the GOP-controlled House of Representatives voted to end trade and travel restrictions.  By then, however, the Bush White House had made clear its intention of vetoing any such legislation.

Nonetheless, for most of 2002, Havana gingerly probed for evidence that it was possible to reach a modus vivendi with Washington.  Raul Castro offered to return detainees from the war in Afghanistan to Guantánamo in the event they tried to escape…Even in the wake of early 2002’s specious accusations regarding Cuba’s supposed potential to develop and proliferate technology for bioweapons, the Cuban government still permitted President Carter’s historic visit in May and allowed the Varela Project petition to be submitted without significant incident.  This gesture would mark the high point of their generosity, however.

Beginning in early 2003, the Bush administration set out to largely undo the people-to-people openings launched by the Clinton administration.  Acquiring or renewing a license for NGO-sponsored or educational travel became more difficult…Soon, almost all of the legal travel categories created under the rubric of “supporting the Cuban people” had been eliminated.

Yet it was the run-up to the war in Iraq and the new mantra or preemptive security that really shook Havana’s expectations of the Bush White House.  One dimension of the Castro government’s efforts to cultivate positive vibes in Washington had been its relative tolerance of a variety of dissident groups (many of which had been infiltrated), from small scale to higher profile.  Congressional delegations visiting Havana could return to their districts and to Washington having met with such individuals, lending their visits, which often explored possible commercial ties with the regime, an air of human rights credibility.  But the benefits of allowing such oxygen evaporated once Washington started to advance its regime change agenda with military power, albeit in Iraq.  Havana reasoned that allowing the groups to continue to function could also give an in-road to an enemy whose designs may well turn belligerent.  Thus, in the eyes of Cuban officials, the national security prerogatives of cracking down on domestic opposition activists were well worth the near-universal international backlash Cuba was likely to (and did) incur…

Several months later, President Bush launched the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (CAFC), a new interagency initiative chaired by a series of cabinet officials.  The commission’s recommendations offered few surprises: Keep sanctions in place, step up efforts to penetrate the government’s “information blockade,” interrupt any moves by a successor regime to replace Fidel Castro, but offer assistance to a transitional government willing to hold elections, release political prisoners, and adopt the marks of freedom stipulated by Helms-Burton.  In the scenarios envisioned by the commission’s first 500-page report, an American “transition coordinator” (a position created soon after at the State Department) would judge when conditions in post-Castro Cuba would make it eligible for aid and other accoutrements that accompany a U.S. seal of approval.

One policy change to emerge from the commission’s work was the president’s move, notably in 2004, an election year, to massively scale back Cuban American family travel and remittances.  Since 1999, Cuban Americans had been permitted to travel annually to the island to visit any member of their extended family.  The new regulations cut these visits to once every three years, and only to see immediate family.  New restrictions on remittances reduced the legal quantity that could be sent and also stipulated that only immediate family would be eligible to receive such transfers.  Previously, they could be sent to “any household.”

Measuring the impact of these changes with any certainty is nearly impossible.  In 2006, the CAFC could only claim that the new policies had reduced remittances “significantly.”  Yet while Cuban families certainly felt the pinch, there was no appreciable effect on the Cuban regime’s capacity to stay in power or repress its citizens…In the same period, Washington denied virtually all requests by Cuban professionals to travel to the United States unless applicants could claim they had been victims of political persecution by the regime…In 2004, the United States also called a halt to the twice-annual migration talks because the meetings allegedly gave the appearance that the United States conferred legitimacy upon the Cuban government.  Cuba’s annual allotment of 20,000 migration visas continued, but human smuggling in the Gulf of Mexico did as well.

In response to these meetings, Cuba reduced its public relations campaigns around lifting the embargo, convinced that they were not, for the moment, worth the effort.  Guantánamo once again became a tool to mobilize domestic nationalism.  Initially, Cuba’s security establishment had hoped to show off its national security bona fides by tolerating the base’s conversion into a detention center for suspected terrorists.  Yet as allegations of torture surfaced and the legality of the detentions came into questions, Guantánamo became, as it did for many of America’s global critics, a symbol of American imperial hubris, one which in the Cuban case also allowed Havana to highlight the island’s own history of grievances over American violations of its sovereignty.  At the same time, fully cognizant of George W. Bush’s bellicosity, the Cuban government appeared to cautiously avoid dramatic provocations of the sort that could lead to a repeat of past migration crises or the 1996 shoot-down.

Among the last public gestures of goodwill under the George W. Bush administration was Fidel Castro’s offer to send hundreds of medical professionals and disaster relief workers to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  But Washington wrote off the offer as a publicity stunt.  The embarrassing prospect that Fidel’s teams of doctors and nurses might have something to contribute to New Orleans residents outweighed any calculus that could actually deliver help to Katrina’s victims.

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