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

One of the justifications the Bush administration now offers for the Iraq war is that regime change in Baghdad has been the policy of the United States since the Clinton administration. Regime change in Cuba has been U.S. policy arguably since 1960, with the possible exception of the Carter administration. At present Bush is not proposing to use military force against Cuba, but he is pursuing regime change more aggressively than past presidents. A gradient exists between simply desiring regime change and taking forceful action to achieve it. The report of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba moves the marker toward the active side by advocating an intensification of the U.S. economic, propaganda, and political war against the island nation.

Iraqi exiles manipulated the United States into an invasion by exaggerating the WMD threat and understating native resistance. The narrow group of Cubans the administration listened to in deciding on its new policy may be attempting their own manipulation. They hope tightening the noose around the Cuban economy will provoke a popular uprising. This could produce three possible regime-change scenarios. Scenario 1: The uprising overthrows Castro. Scenario 2: Castro uses violent repression to suppress the uprising, causing international condemnation and a pretext for U.S. military intervention. Scenario 3: To prevent an uprising, Castro unleashes an exodus, which the U.S. government considers a hostile action requiring a military response.

Probably none of these scenarios will materialize, but on Calle Ocho and in some congressional offices the vision of Marines charging ashore (as they should have at the Bay of Pigs) is a fantasy that dies hard.


Violent scenario or not, the policy outlined in the Cuba commission report anticipates near total control by the United States, as if Cuba had been invaded and occupied Iraqi-style. The language attempts to conceal this reality, but ends up revealing it. For example, the report refers to "empowering the Cuban people" or "empowering Cuban civil society" an incredible 47 times.

The assumption that, in a post-Castro Cuba, the United States would be in the driver's seat runs throughout the report. Lisandro Perez, former director of the FIU Cuban Research Institute, has read every word of the document, which runs well over 400 pages. His assessment: "It practically calls for a U.S. protectorate" in a post-Castro Cuba. Indeed this "free Cuba" would be free of Castro and socialism, but hardly free of the pervasive influence of the U.S. government and Miami exiles.

At times the commission report is blatantly condescending toward Cubans on the island. Chapter four, "Establishing the Core Institutions of a Free Economy," states that "it will take time to build national institutions, as well as develop in individuals the attitudes, expertise, and skills capable of managing Cuba's reconstruction.... The reconstruction effort in a free Cuba will also be costly. In this regard, the burden of reconstruction need not fall completely on the shoulders of the United States and must be done in close consultation with the Cuban people." (Emphasis added.)

The language signals who will be in charge. Some external actor will carry out the reconstruction. The Cuban people, like natives of old European colonies in Asia, Africa, and the New World, will be consulted as their economy is being transformed following a blueprint made in the U.S.A.

Reading the report and extrapolating from the experience of Iraq, the true agenda seems to run like this: First the United States will "hasten Cuba's transition" by turning the screws tight on the island's economy and by funding dissident groups. That will produce regime change. The economy will be in ruins. Institutions such as the widely praised Cuban healthcare and educational systems will be in tatters for lack of money, making it easy to raze them completely in favor of privatization. Then the whole place can be rebuilt from scratch using American advisers, plenty of taxpayer cash, and juicy contracts for favored U.S. companies, some undoubtedly based in Miami.

The exile extremism that has seized the moment is a mentality more than an organized movement. In this mindset, a war without quarter, a struggle between good and absolute evil, is fought against Fidel Castro every day. Such an outlook justifies almost any method. Before the Cuban American National Foundation mellowed, the group published a full-page ad in the Miami Herald that rationalized the bombing of tourist facilities in Cuba. Exile militants deny involvement in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people, but they don't condemn the act. By comparison, threatening family bonds and starving the Cuban people into rebellion are not considered radical actions.

This mode of thinking is typified by the Cuban Liberty Council, made up of former CANF members disgruntled with the foundation's drift toward the center. Miami's three Cuban-American members of Congress walk in lockstep with the council. Once derided as Little Havana delusions, their views are now the law of the land, enforced with the full power and authority of the U.S. government.

It is an astonishing achievement in light of the raw numbers. Cubans compose only 3.7 percent of the Hispanic population of the United States, according to the latest U.S. Census data, which are for March 2002. Cubans residing in the United States that year numbered 1.38 million out of a U.S. population of more than 282 million -- less than one-half of one percent of the total. The extremists amount to considerably less than half of that trifling fraction, yet they keep the rest of us from going to Cuba. A very tiny tail is wagging a very big dog.

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