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September 9, 2004

Think Tank Blasts Bush Commission Report on Cuba

by Jim Lobe

A 10-member international task force of prominent analysts and former diplomats has warned that recommendations by a special commission on the Bush administration's plans for Cuba, released last May, "will poorly serve U.S. interests in Cuba and the wider region".

In an open letter to the commission's co-chair, Secretary of State Colin Powell, the task force of the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), a Washington-based think tank, charged that the report places a greater emphasis on ending the rule of President Fidel Castro than on ensuring a "peaceful" transition process, which has long been officially stated U.S. policy.

"The Commission's report refers to a 'peaceful transition' in some instances, but the 'expeditious end of the Castro dictatorship' is used to describe the central objective of the U.S. government," according to the letter, which noted further that "many sections of the report appear to anticipate violence".

"Taken as a whole, the report suggests that the U.S. government regards the possibility of peaceful change in Cuba as subordinate to the larger goal of ending the Castro government," the group said. "We believe that the relative priority needs to be reversed – and that a peaceful transition in Cuba should remain the fundamental goal of U.S. policy."

"Abandoning that commitment [to a peaceful transition] would represent a dramatic and unfortunate change in U.S. policy," stressed the letter, whose signers included former top U.S. policymakers on Latin America in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

The letter – which was also signed by Shahid Javed Burki, former World Bank vice president for Latin America; former Canadian Foreign Minister Barbara McDougall; and former Swedish Amb. Pierre Schori – comes amid an intensification of the U.S. presidential campaign in which Florida, home to most U.S. Cuban-Americans, is considered a key "swing state" that could well decide the election outcome, just as it did four years ago.

While Cuban-Americans gave Bush some 82 percent of their vote in 2000, most political analysts say the president is unlikely to do nearly as well this year due to growing splits within the community, particularly between hardline anti-Castro exiles who arrived before 1980 and more recent arrivals who retain stronger ties to the island.

The changing politics of the Cuban-American community was underlined just last week when the executive director of its most prominent anti-Castro lobby group, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), Joe Garcia, abruptly resigned his post to join the New Democrat Network (NDN).

"Joe is going to send a message to Cuban-Americans that they are welcome in the Democratic Party," said Simon Rosenberg, NDN's executive director.

In his increasingly frequent visits to Florida, Democratic candidate John Kerry is trying to hone the same message, in part by assailing several of the Commission's more hard-line recommendations that were adopted by the Bush administration, much to the anger of a significant number of Cuban-Americans who maintain close contacts with families in Cuba.

The commission, formally called the President's Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, was the brainchild of the most hard-line anti-Castro elements in the Bush administration and Congress, including former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Otto Reich; his successor, Roger Noriega; former CANF Washington director, Jose Cardenas; and Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida.

They were all disappointed that Bush had not pursued more confrontational policies toward Castro during his first 30 months in office, particularly in the wake of his decision in July 2003 to repatriate 12 Cubans whose hijacked boat was intercepted by the Coast Guard.

"We fear the historic and intense support from Cuban American voters for Republican federal candidates, including yourself, will be jeopardized," 13 Florida lawmakers, including Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart, warned in a letter to Bush at the time.

The commission – for which Powell and Cuban-born Housing Secretary Mel Martinez, who is running for the Senate from Florida in November, were made co-chairs – was effectively run by the hardliners.

Among other measures adopted by the administration, the commission called for reducing the number of trips to Cuba permitted for Cuban-Americans from one a year to one every three years; banning remittances to anyone in Cuba except close family members; and sharply reducing the amount of money that can be spent by Cuban-Americans during their visits. Such measures have created a backlash against the administration among a significant number of Cuban-Americans, according to recent reports.

The IAD task force assailed these measures as contradictory and counterproductive, particularly in light of the Eastern European experience that, in its view, showed that enhanced interpersonal contacts promoted internal change.

But the group's bigger concerns related to the implicit and, at times, explicit references in the commission's report to a potentially violent and disruptive transition. It refers, for example, to the necessity of keeping schools open "during an emergency phase of the transition in order to keep children and teenagers off the street" and warns that the food supply "could be disrupted by turmoil that could follow a vacuum of authority."

Several of the report's recommendations might well increase the risk of violence and unrest as well, according to the letter. It calls for the disbanding of Cuba's existing security institutions and quick moves to prosecute former regime officials, at one point calling for "vengeance" against "prominent senior officials of the Communist Party, the government, the mass organizations, and especially the police and security services."

The report also calls for "dramatically restructuring Cuba's health and educational services" despite the fact that the country has among the best records in these two areas of any in the developing world.

"Cuban professionals know what is needed to sustain and improve health and education. They deserve respect," the letter states, noting that the report's calls for retraining educators and replacing educational materials "appears overly zealous," while its call for all Cubans under five to be vaccinated showed "lack of serious research," given the fact that Cuba has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world.

"In any event, such [decisions] should rest in the hands of the new Cuban government – not the U.S.," the letter states. "The fact remains . . . that this, four-hundred-plus-page report is heavily prescriptive, offering extremely detailed proposals for every political, economic and social aspect of Cuba's potential transition."

The letter also scores the commission's approach to restoring expropriated properties as "wrong," "self-serving," and "likely . . . to build resentment," particularly in light of current U.S. efforts to persuade other countries to forgive Iraq's debts.

"No matter how justified the claims are, Cubans will resist giving up homes that they and their families have occupied for many years, particularly given the destitute state of the economy and the island's enormous housing shortage. Yet the report emphasizes that Cuban exiles will be able to reclaim their properties or receive compensation, evict current tenants after a specified period of time, and be able to charge or even increase rent," according to the report. "This is not good politics, intelligent economics, or smart diplomacy."

Finally, the letter notes that the commission proposes a "far-reaching, unilateral role for the U.S. in Cuba's future," noting that a "broadly cooperative approach will be healthier for Cuba and for longer-term U.S.-Cuban relations."

U.S. signers included William Rogers and Viron Vaky, who served as top Latin American policymakers under Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter, respectively; IAD president Peter Hakim; Harvard Prof. Jorge Dominguez, and Lisandor Perez and Marifeli Perez-Stable, both of Florida International University. The IAD's co-chairman is Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the former president of Brazil.

(Inter Press Service)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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