Politics and Policy

With its severe new Cuba regulations, the Bush administration alienated some Miami exiles, but not the ones who matter

It was the proverbial wake-up call for the White House, whose officials thanked Garcia by blackballing him. As far as the Bush team was concerned, CANF's tradition of pragmatism in political donations -- giving to candidates of both parties -- was unacceptable. But Garcia's remarks about Diaz-Balart reportedly went too far, not only dishonoring a loyal supporter of the president but also tarnishing the reputations of Bush's Cuban-American political appointees, including White House advisers Otto Reich and Emilio Gonzalez. Kevin Whitaker, head of the State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs, canceled his scheduled appearance at CANF's annual membership congress a few days later. Garcia and his boss, CANF chairman Jorge Mas Santos, have been unable to meet with administration officials ever since.

That didn't stop Garcia and Miami-Dade's state legislators from taking some credit when President Bush stepped out to the Rose Garden on October 10, 2003, and announced the creation of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which would undertake a thorough review of U.S. relations with the island nation. More than a dozen agencies would participate. Secretary of State Colin Powell and HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, a proud Cuban American, would be co-chairs. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega, a former aide to North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, would run its day-to-day operations, along with his deputy Dan Fisk, another former Helms adviser.

The Bush administration had already been poised to develop sweeping new plans for a post-Castro Cuba, so no one was surprised when the president instructed the commission to find ways to help a free Cuba establish democratic institutions, develop respect for human rights, create a market economy, modernize its infrastructure, and so on. Bush was also expected to seek tougher enforcement of existing restrictions on travel to Cuba.

This past October, when President Bush stood in the Rose Garden with Colin Powell and Mel Martinez to announce the creation of his Cuba commission
This past October, when President Bush stood in the Rose Garden with Colin Powell and Mel Martinez to announce the creation of his Cuba commission
U.S. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen were so thankful of the President's Cuba commission
George Bridges/KRT
U.S. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen were so thankful of the President's Cuba commission

But his Rose Garden announcement also contained something not expected, a surprise that caught some administration officials off guard and which they believe he penned into his speech at the last minute. Bush called for additional steps to "hasten the arrival of" democracy, diplospeak that could be translated as "exterminate Castro."

Administration sources explain that the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, as its very name indicated, was intended to consider Cuba after the Castro regime had ended. Hastening the transition -- squeezing Fidel by drastically restricting travel and remittances to the island -- was not supposed to be part of the commission's mandate. And so Bush's unexpected addition of this incendiary component prompted much speculation. The move had clear political overtones (placating Miami's exile hardliners), but who was responsible?

"I think this came out of the White House," offers Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "My impression is that this president from day one was interested in hastening Cuba's transition, and even before that he had a dislike for Fidel Castro," says Suchlicki, whose firm opposition to Castro is well known. "Maybe he was overtaken by events, 9/11 and other things. But Cuba was, in the thinking of the people around him, a high priority after his election -- and before his election. Otto [Reich] was there and Emilio [Gonzalez] and Karl Rove, and all these guys looked at Fidel as an anomaly and Cuba as a thing that should be put into the dustbin of history. They came to the White House with that kind of mentality." (Reich and Gonzalez declined to comment.)

President Bush could no longer be accused of ignoring Cuba. He had now called on virtually every federal agency to contribute to an unprecedented plan to free the island from tyranny and help rebuild it. The core group of the commission consisted of six Cabinet members: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, Treasury Secretary John Snow, Commerce Secretary Don Evans, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonse Jackson, and USAID administrator Andrew Natsios. The commission was divided into five "working groups" that would make recommendations for achieving the following goals: meeting basic needs in health, education, housing, and human services; establishing democratic institutions, respect for human rights, the rule of law, and national justice and reconciliation; establishing the core institutions of a free economy; modernizing infrastructure and addressing environmental degradation; and last but certainly not least, hastening Cuba's transition.

The commission didn't convene for the first time until December 5, 2003, yet the White House set a quick deadline of May 1 for the delivery of all recommendations. Anything later into the presidential campaign season risked being viewed by el exilio as an election-year ploy. "We tried to keep it out of the silly season," says a senior State Department official. But that would prove impossible.

Politics dogged the commission's work almost immediately. Just two weeks after its launch, the Senate passed a measure to end the ban on travel to Cuba. It came in the form of an appropriations-bill amendment that would zero out funding for enforcement of the ban. The vote was 59-to-36, with nineteen of the Yes votes cast by Bush's fellow Republicans. (The amendment was later stripped from the bill.)

For the working group charged with developing recommendations for "hastening Cuba's transition," it soon became clear their research would be guided by political considerations, an awareness reinforced by the group's leading members. This was not just another team of policy wonks; it was a politically savvy crew. Fisk, a veteran foreign policy adviser who helped write the 1996 Helms-Burton law, was coordinator. Three of Bush's Cuban-American appointees were also members. One was Mauricio Tamargo, the chairman of the Treasury Department's Foreign Claims Settlement Commission and former chief of staff for Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Another was Adolfo Franco, assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Agency for International Development. The third was the president's Envoy for Western Hemisphere Initiatives, Otto Reich, who had long advocated squelching the flow of dollars to the Cuban dictator. He was a lobbyist for Bacardi and the nonprofit Center for a Free Cuba when Bush tapped him in 2001 to be Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. But Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee blocked the nomination. Among their concerns were his State Department activities related to the Iran-contra affair, which a congressional investigation concluded were part of a disinformation campaign and which the U.S. comptroller general deemed were "prohibited covert propaganda activities."

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