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Bush intensifies anti-Cuba campaign, but exiles say White House falls short.

George W. Bush is tougher on Cuba than any president since Ronald Reagan, and U.S.-Cuba relations are at their lowest point since Fidel Castro's 1996 shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes.

Yet while the White House campaign may block any congressional openings to Cuba and result in less U.S. travel to the island, it won't force Castro from power--despite election-year pressures from South Florida exile groups.

Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, said his organization is disappointed that Bush hasn't come up with a better strategy on Cuba.

"What has he done in the last three and a half years but talk?" complained Garcia.

Officials in Havana, meanwhile, say Bush's "provocative" moves toward the Castro regime--the cancellation of bilateral migration talks, the ouster of 19 Cuban diplomats from missions in New York and Washington, and a crackdown on unauthorized travel to Cuba--are all part of a White House plot to invade the island, assassinate Castro and bring about "regime change."

In a Feb. 4 article, the Communist Party daily Granma accused Bush of "creating a climate of artificial hysteria that would justify before American public opinion a military adventure against our homeland, including the physical elimination of companero Fidel."

There's no question that Washington's rhetoric against Havana has intensified in the last few months. The Bush administration's point man on Cuba, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, accuses Castro of "actions to destabilize democratically elected governments" in Latin America, and of plotting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Bush has also established a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, composed of 20 federal agency officials and headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell. The team is expected to release its findings on May 1, just a few weeks before Bush's annual Cuban Independence Day speech on May 20.

The commission's mandate is to identify ways the United States could help hasten Castro's overthrow and help smooth Cuba's transition to a post-Castro sytem.

Noriega said the report will make recommendations on democracy and the rule of law, the creation of core institutions of free enterprise and the improvement of health care, infrastructure, housing and urban services.


Some 100 officials from the National Security Council, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the departments of State, Housing, Treasury, Commerce and Homeland Security reportedly began working on the project in early December.

Brian Latell, a fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he's been hired as a consultant to the commission. But no one, including key exile leaders, really knows what the commission is doing or whether it will come up with any fresh ideas. In addition, no list of the commission's 20 members has been made public.

"Thus far, there's nothing serious about the commission," Garcia said. "It's pure politics."

Garcia also said that once re-elected, Bush could abandon his pledge to veto any legislation that would ease the embargo. Late last year, the president threatened to veto any liberalization of U.S. travel to Cuba and an end to the ban on U.S. credit for Cuba's purchases of U.S. food and medicine--despite strong congressional support for those measures.

The CANF leader, who speaks for 20,000 exiles, fears that an easing of the embargo "will come next year."

But others say Bush will continue to turn up the heat on Cuba because Castro is viewed as being more vulnerable than usual.

"The president is committed to seeing some change in Cuba," said Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "But an invasion of the island, no."

Suchlicki said reports that Castro's health is failing are more frequent, and that the emergence of a dissident movement in Cuba has heartened hardliners in the administration.

"There are also indications that Cuban revolutionary fervor has died down," he said.

U.S. concerns about Cuba's transition to a post-Castro world are almost as strong as they were in the early 1990s, when the same analysts thought the collapse of the Eastern bloc was a fatal blow for Castro's government.


At a Washington event in January hosted by Suchlicki's institute, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios warned that "there's a real possibility of a complex emergency" including "a high risk of chaotic migration" to the United States when Castro leaves power.

USAID plans $7 million in aid for Cuba this year, on top of the $28 million the United States has spent on NGOs it says are working to promote human rights, a free flow of information and a peaceful transition in Cuba.

Other speakers said Cuba's vaunted healthcare system is deteriorating. Noriega urged a swift delivery of U.S. aid to the island after Castro is gone. But no one knows if Cuba will welcome the help. Nor is there agreement on how the post-Castro transition will unfold.

"The succession is going to be smooth and fast, and the transition is going to be slow and painful," Suchlicki predicted.

Raul Castro, the Cuban president's younger brother and head of Cuba's armed forces, is the designated successor. Suchlicki said Raul Castro will initially reject U.S. aid. "He's not going to immediately look at the U.S. and say 'let's make a deal,'" Suchlicki said.

The UM professor said it's likely that Bush's commission will recommend strengthening the signals of Radio and TV Marti. Bowing to exile wishes, the Bush administration used one of the Pentagon's C-130 aircraft to broadcast to Cuba--but only for one day last year. In addition, U.S. negotiations with Belize to transmit from that English-speaking Central American nation have broken down.

The president is also expected to continue his crackdown on unauthorized U.S. travel to Cuba; three administrative law judges have recently been hired by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control to hear an increasing number of cases of American travelers who are being prosecuted for embargo violations by OFAC.

Suchlicki also predicted that the president may decide "to throw five or six more Cubans out" of diplomatic missions in Washington and New York, even though that would provoke Cuban retaliation.

Meanwhile, with their own eyes on Florida, the top Democratic contenders for the White House are taking a harder line on Cuba (see page 11 of this issue of CubaNews). Sens. John Edwards (D-NC) and John Kerry (D-MA) initially joined most of their Democratic colleagues in voting to allow food sales to Cuba. But now they're meeting with exile leaders and vowing to keep the embargo in place until the day Castro no longer rules the island.
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Title Annotation:George W. Bush
Author:Radelat, Ana
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2004
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