Exiles' votes guide Bush's Cuba policy

October 16, 2002|By Morris Morley and Chris McGillion

WASHINGTON -- One of the casualties of the approaching congressional elections will be any prospect that Washington's Cuba policy might be removed from its Cold War freezer and thawed to serve contemporary U.S. national interests.

The explanation is the electoral clout of a narrow, if declining, majority of Florida's Cuban-Americans and their insistence that political candidates accept their hard line regarding Havana. Tied to this is the perceived political dependence of both President Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, on Miami.

The president learned this fateful fact two years ago when Miami's votes narrowly edged him into office. Jeb Bush scurries to retain the esteem of Cuban-Americans for both himself and his brother, having assured leaders of the exile community in February 2001 that he would press the new administration to maintain a hard line on Cuban President Fidel Castro.

He met this pledge by lobbying for the appointment of Cuban exile Otto Reich -- a notorious anti-Communist ideologue and former Reagan administration official -- as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.

According to senior State Department sources, Jeb Bush remains the administration's main channel with the exile community.

The interconnected fate of the Bush brothers has created a powerful new dynamic for U.S.-Cuba policy so that Washington's policy toward Cuba really is domestic politics writ large. Publicly, U.S. officials defend Cuba policy in terms of Mr. Castro's unacceptable behavior. But some concede privately that what passes for policy is "absurd."

When it comes to Cuba, Washington's double standards aren't novel. By the early 1990s, Mr. Castro had met the key preconditions for normalized bilateral relations: the withdrawal of troops from Africa, the termination of military ties with Moscow and the end of support for revolution in Latin America.

But to appease the Cuban-American lobby, George Bush Sr. dramatically shifted the goalposts by demanding reforms inside Cuba. This mischievous approach persisted, ensuring that Cuba's modest market liberalization, its courting of foreign investors and drastic downsizing of its military (from 200,000 in 1994 to about 60,000 today) did not qualify for the "calibrated response" that President Bill Clinton maintained would greet such reforms.

When State Department officials were queried about Cuba's being excluded from the dM-itente policies that the United States was pursuing toward the former Soviet bloc, their routine response was, "It's a matter of domestic politics."

President Bush's logic is the same. In May 2001, he expanded U.S. preconditions for removing sanctions, insisting that Mr. Castro must first free political prisoners and hold democratic elections. For the past year, Mr. Bush has exploited America's post-Sept. 11 trauma to blunt calls for improving relations.

The White House has rebuffed Cuban overtures to assist U.S. drug interdiction efforts, most recently fabricating charges that Cuba was obstructing the drug war. It earlier spurned Havana's offer to facilitate the U.S. detention of al-Qaida prisoners at Guantanamo and sheepishly stood behind invented claims that Cuba had exported biological weapons to "axis of evil" nations.

In a key policy speech before a cheering Miami audience, Mr. Bush poured cold water on private U.S. financing of Cuban agricultural purchases, announced an expansion of propaganda broadcasts to the island and reaffirmed his intentions to find ways to support anti-Castro forces in Cuba.

In July, State Department officials lobbied vigorously -- but unsuccessfully -- against a House vote to lift the Cuba travel ban. Meanwhile, efforts by Bush officials to implicate Cuba in the "terrorist war" have not flagged. One of the most recent attempts has been to designate the island (again devoid of evidence) a "comfort station" for terrorists from around the world.

Since the end of the Cold War, liberal comment on Cuba has allowed optimism to overwhelm sound analysis, interpreting small changes at the margins of U.S.-Cuban relations -- such as easing Cuba's ability to import U.S. food and medicine -- as harbingers of a major policy shift.

Such analyses represent a fundamental misreading of the domestic imperatives that drive Cuba policy. There will be no significant change until the disparate U.S. voices now calling for a new direction -- business groups, farmers, religious organizations, humanitarian interest groups -- organize into a sharpened constituency capable of challenging Miami's fading domination of the debate.

Morris Morley and Chris McGillion are senior research fellows with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington and co-authors of Unfinished Business: America and Cuba Since the End of the Cold War, 1989-2001 (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

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