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.

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.

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.

Who do they represent? A 2000 poll by Florida International University is the only survey that compares the views of Miami Cubans, non-Cuban Miamians, and a national sample of Americans. It showed that unrestricted travel to Cuba was favored by 63 percent of Americans nationwide, 53 percent of Cubans in Miami, and 75 percent of non-Cubans in this city.

One group, however, was opposed to free travel: Cuban Americans who arrived in the United States before 1975. While 74 percent of those who arrived after 1984 supported free travel, 60 percent of those who arrived before 1975 opposed it. Two-thirds of this latter group would also support U.S. military action in Cuba, a move opposed by 82 percent of Americans nationally.

These results reflect demographic statistics showing that Cubans who have arrived in recent decades now outnumber the historical exiles of the Sixties and Seventies; newer immigrants simply don't share the old guard's radical views on key issues like travel. But the historical exiles have acquired citizenship, registered to vote, and nearly always go to the polls. According to figures reported in a poll by Sergio Bendixen, old-guard exiles have voting power disproportionate to their numbers. Cubans are now slightly less than 50 percent of the Hispanic population of Miami-Dade, but 75 percent of all Hispanic voters are Cuban. According to Bendixen, Cubans who arrived before 1980 account for 50 percent of the 437,332 Hispanic registered voters in the county. Cubans who have arrived since 1980 account for only fifteen percent. Among the old guard, voter turnout is very high.

But the balance of power will change, and not just because of mortality. The new wave, aroused by policies championed by the old guard that seriously hinder efforts to maintain family bonds, will begin registering and voting. For the time being, though, the majority of Cubans in the United States, whose freedom to travel is violated by a minority who speak in the name of freedom, lack more than voting clout. They don't hold political office. They are not in Congress or the state legislature. They don't run corporations. They don't have any members in the Miami Business Forum. They don't chair the chamber of commerce or the United Way. Few are able to give big political contributions, and none host fundraisers for U.S. presidential candidates.

The historical exiles who arrived in the Sixties (and their children) have a monopoly on positions of power. They are using their advantage to impose a tyranny on their fellow Cubans through a cruel and unjust use of authority. In the process, the freedom of all Americans is curtailed, and the underpinnings of a future imperial adventure are established.

Almost all newer arrivals do have one thing historical exiles commonly lack: close family and friends in Cuba. Many are only now realizing they will be denied the chance to visit a parent, a child, a spouse, or a sibling except every three years, and then only if a bureaucrat in Washington deems it appropriate to grant them a special license.

Their unhappiness with this state of affairs has just begun to be felt. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the epitome of a hardliner, got a taste of it the day before travel restrictions went into effect. At Miami International Airport he encountered a group of furious Cuban Americans who wanted to beat the deadline and travel on planes headed for Cuba to pick up passengers. But they ended up stranded at MIA when the State Department prohibited them from boarding the empty flights. Such fury, if channeled into political action, could bring regime change to Miami and Washington well before it happens in Havana.

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