Triumph of the Zealots

A small cadre of exile fanatics now controls the Bush administration's Cuba policy, and Fidel Castro couldn't be happier

The most extreme faction within the Cuban-exile community has effectively seized control of U.S. policy toward Cuba. Understandably, attention lately has centered on the reaction of Miami Cubans to radical new restrictions on travel to the island. To deny people the right to travel to see loved ones (except once every three years), to define by government fiat who is and who is not a close enough relative to merit a visit or receive a remittance (grandmothers yes, uncles no) is an outrage worthy of indignation.

But the more momentous and shocking development implied by these new measures, and others recently instituted or now under consideration, is that the foreign policy of a nation of almost 295 million people has become an instrument for the obsessions of a very small minority. The thinking of this faction is unrepresentative of the American people and even of the Cuban-American community. Yet the outlook of this minority within a minority informs our government's entire approach to Cuba.

This is the inescapable conclusion drawn from developments over the past twelve months. These developments include the Bush administration's crackdown last year on increasingly popular U.S.-Cuba cultural and educational exchanges, and the report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, issued two months ago, which recommended the drastic cuts in family visits to Cuba that have been adopted and implemented.

AFP Photo
AFP Photo

While the consequences of this extremist takeover of American policy affect Cuban Americans most directly, they also touch Americans who value their right to travel -- from Key West sailors to marine scientists. More important, the zealot-inspired approach to Cuba implicates every American in a draconian, merciless policy carried out in our name, a policy enforced with our tax dollars and which diverts crucial resources from the fight against terrorism.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Hardliners have had great influence on United States policy toward Cuba since the early Eighties, when the Reagan administration came to power and the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) was founded. But things had been changing in recent years. During the Cold War a tough policy against Fidel Castro had broad support in the nation and among Cuban Americans. More recently, however, polls have shown that national support for this policy has decreased decisively, and in Congress majorities repeatedly have voted to liberalize trade and end the travel ban. Agriculture and business lobbies have come out against the embargo. Even among Cuban Americans, a slew of surveys have shown an emerging majority favoring free travel. New, slightly more moderate organizations like the Cuba Study Group have formed, and even CANF has demonstrated some signs of moderation.

What is new and amazing is that the most ferocious policy since the Cold War should be adopted at a time when all national and local trends are pointing in the opposite direction. The Bush administration has approved many of the items on the wish list of the most demagogic radio commentators and other assorted fanatics over the recommendations of the well-heeled business leaders in CANF and the Cuba Study Group, not to mention the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. By any reasonable measure, the Cuba Study Group and CANF still toe the hard line: They support the embargo and the travel ban, albeit with exceptions for Cuban Americans and for "purposeful travel." Yet they have been outflanked on the right. In the past, hard-line policies often have been tempered with humanitarian concerns or a modicum of respect for the right of Americans to travel for cultural and educational reasons, but no longer. In addition, by interfering with family visits (a move not credible to ordinary Cubans on the island as a blow against the government) anti-Castro militants are repeating the blunder of the Elian saga and are handing their nemesis the mantle of defender of the Cuban family.

The most ominous implications of this coup go far beyond who can travel to Cuba and how often. Other ideas near and dear to the rabid right also made their way into the report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. The massive document, a report to the president, is supposed to be a blueprint for U.S. policy toward Cuba in a post-Castro future. It was prepared with input from myriad U.S. government agencies under the coordination of Secretary of State Colin Powell. But it reads first and foremost like another adventure in regime change, one brought to you by a joint venture of Bush administration neoconservatives and exile hardliners, the same kind of coalition that produced the Iraq war. (Read the report online at www.state.gov/p/wha/rt/cuba/commission/2004/c12237.htm)

There is nothing about military action in the report; a "free Cuba" is to come about seemingly by spontaneous generation. The Cuban government periodically warns of an invasion, and the current escalation of U.S. rhetoric in concert with the new policy initiatives offer a perfect opportunity for Castro to rally his own nationalist hard-line base. But it is easy to dismiss an invasion as merely Cuban propaganda. After all, the U.S. military is overextended and the public weary of war. As for the case that Cuba is capable of producing biological weapons and therefore is a threat to U.S. security -- that notion suffered a hard blow after the fiasco with WMD in Iraq. Yet no one predicted an invasion of Iraq before 9/11, either. Hawks in the Bush administration, such as neocon John Bolton of the State Department, continue to argue that Cuba is a biological-weapons threat.

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