Artists, Ideas, and Subversion

In 1992 Congress passed the Cuban Democracy Act, a complicated piece of legislation that attempted to tighten the U.S. commercial embargo against Cuba while liberalizing "people-to-people" contacts. The measure was introduced by New Jersey Democrat Rep. Robert Torricelli (now a senator), whose aide Richard Nuccio was largely responsible for its creation.

That portion of Torricelli's bill aimed at encouraging people-to-people contacts came to be known as Track Two (Track One being the effort to strengthen the embargo). As it was conceived, Track Two called for more involvement with independent organizations in Cuba and an increase in exchanges between American universities and Cuban academics and artists. The underlying theory held that democratic ideals were so powerfully attractive that mere exposure to them could hasten the demise of totalitarian regimes.

Nuccio went on to become an influential White House advisor on Cuban affairs and a familiar figure in Miami, where he often visited with exile leaders to explain, and attempt to gain support for, President Clinton's initiatives regarding Cuba. (He has since left the administration.) "Was the intention [of Track Two] to undermine the system?" he remarks today. "Only if the system is such that the Cuban government has total control over all aspects of Cuban lives from the cradle to the grave, and I would agree that it does."

The effectiveness of the Track Two component of the Cuban Democracy Act came under fire as one controversy after another rocked U.S.-Cuba relations: the 1994 rafter crisis; the subsequent immigration accords, including repatriation of rafters; the 1996 shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes; and passage of the Helms-Burton legislation that further tightened the embargo and effectively removed Cuban policy from White House control.

Still, the Track Two provisions were never retracted. Indeed Clinton administration policy changes announced this past January expand on Track Two's approach to increase ease of contact among individuals and nongovernmental organizations. And over the past couple of years, more Cuban artists, musicians, and athletes have exhibited, performed, and played in the United States than at any time since Castro's revolution triumphed in 1959.

While some top Cuban officials viewed Track Two as a subversive attempt to destabilize their government, Minister of Culture Abel Prieto sees it as an opportunity. "Here we've been talking about a Track Three," he says, "about the possibility for us to have influence in the United States through exchange, through culture, through sports -- as we've just seen [with baseball] in Baltimore.

"I think the answer to Track Two has to be Track Three," he explains. "To continue doing things with American artists, to maintain cultural activities with the emigrants themselves. This is about reason, about the most rational way men can be at the end of the century, faced with craziness, delirium, stupidity, clumsiness, mediocrity.

"What was Track Two's essential objective? There can be a paranoid reading of Track Two here in Cuba. And that could result in a tendency to close ourselves off. I think it would be a mistake to take that position. It seems to me the idea is to work principally on this Track Three with an intense, well-designed exchange through Cuban institutions, because the American attitude is to not recognize the legitimate Cuban institutional system."

Richard Nuccio gives mixed reviews to Prieto's thoughts. "Abel's response to Track Two is much more constructive than viewing it as the most evil plot since the original embargo," he says. "But his comment about careful control by institutions is inconsistent with the idea of an open society. Their society has failed. Their attempt to replace citizens with institutions -- those things are all failing in Cuba.

"What we were saying to the Cubans when we wrote the Track Two legislation was that we can go toward a new relationship without them saying the revolution is over and without us saying the embargo is over," he continues. "This was a middle ground: You try to influence opinions and ideas in our society, and we'll try to influence them in your society. I say great, may the best system win.

"The more we practice what will inevitably be our future, the better. We should practice whether it's music or literature or sports or travel. I hope Abel is right, that this is a two-way street."

-- By Judy Cantor


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