The politics behind Clinton's Cuba policy

August 30, 1994|By Jane Franklin

PRESIDENT Clinton's Cuba policy is not in the interest of the American people. It is not in the interest of the Cuban people. It is in the interest of an obscure but powerful right-wing Cuban American group.

When President Clinton was asked to explain to dismayed Cuban Americans why he has shut the door to Cuban immigrants, the President responded that he is supported by "Cuban Americans I know."

But who are the Cuban Americans Mr. Clinton knows? Chief among them is Jorge Mas Canosa, the leader of the right-wing Cuban American National Foundation, based in Miami. Jorge Mas Canosa has been well-known at the White House ever since the Reagan Administration created the foundation in 1981 to help carry out a policy of isolating Cuba. In 1992, Mas Canosa helped raise money for Bill Clinton's campaign.

A master lobbyist, Jorge Mas Canosa consistently has opposed all negotiations or indeed any contact with Cuba. His foundation has called for Cubans on the island to organize an uprising to overthrow Mr. Castro. In 1992, he engineered the so-called Cuban Democracy Act, which House sponsor Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., claimed would "wreak havoc on that island."

And wreak havoc it has. Economic devastation is making thousands of Cubans flee for the United States. Now the Clinton administration wants to use the exodus to further the goals of Mr. Mas Canosa: Every new policy initiative announced in response to the refugee crisis implements an item on his agenda.

Mr. Mas Canosa was delighted when Mr. Clinton announced that Cuban refugees will no longer be granted automatic asylum, claiming that this will lead to the "liberation of Cuba." He was similarly pleased with restrictions on travel and U.S. money sent to relatives in Cuba. Cuba will lose some $500 million as a result of the policies, further upsetting the precarious economic climate.

President Clinton also granted new power to Radio and TV Marti, paid for by our taxes, but controlled by the foundation. Radio Marti is now transmitting at double its prior capacity, adding four Voice of America shortwave channels to the six it was using. The U.S. military even helps interfere with Cuba's jamming efforts.

President Clinton also wants the United Nations to focus on what he calls "human rights abuses" in Cuba -- another part of the foundation agenda. But the United Nations already has called overwhelmingly for the repeal of the Cuban Democracy Act and the U.S. embargo. Bill Clinton might better spend his time looking at the human-rights record of his Cuban friends.

A 1992 report by Americas Watch and Fund for Free Expression on human-rights abuses in Miami documented a campaign of intimidation and terror. The report criticized the U.S. government for "encouragement, primarily through funding, of groups that have been closely identified with efforts to restrict freedom of expression." The "principal example," says the report, is money granted to groups such as the Cuban American National Foundation.

The president also is in debt to Mr. Mas Canosa. With his campaign coffers running low in April 1992, Bill Clinton went to Florida to announce his support for the Cuban Democracy Act, then under congressional consideration. The Clinton campaign netted $275,000 from foundation-sponsored events.

Despite this profitable socializing, Bill Clinton doesn't know the majority of Cuban Americans. A Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies poll in 1988 showed that 73 percent of Cuban Americans favored normalized relations between Cuba and the United States. Even more -- 86 percent -- wanted travel restrictions eased. And every day in Miami's Little Havana, Cuban Americans protest the separation from their families in Cuba. The last thing they want to see is their relatives starving in Cuba or languishing in Guantanamo Bay.

But to Mr. Clinton and other politicians influenced by Mr. Mas Canosa, the pain inflicted on Cubans is not a prime concern. "It will hurt near-term, but it is the only way of achieving the long-term goal of establishing freedom in Cuba," says Rep. Torricelli about the suffering of Cubans. Jorge Mas Canosa, says Rep. Torricelli, will "restore democracy" to Cuba.

Mr. Clinton and Rep. Torricelli are living in Jorge Mas Canosa's fantasy. For 35 years, the U.S. government has tried to crush Mr. Castro and replace him with a client regime. Jorge Mas Canosa is not the future of Cuba -- he is the past. Only normalized relations will allow both countries the benefits of free cultural and economic exchange, providing an end to economic strangulation for Cubans and insurance against aspiring despots like Jorge Mas Canosa.

Historian Jane Franklin is author of "The Cuban Revolution and the United States, a Chronological History," (Ocean Press, 1992) and contributing editor to Cuba Update, the journal of the Center for Cuban Studies in New York City. She wrote this for the New York Times.

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