October 15, 2003

October 15, 2003 | WebMemo on Latin America

Gloves Off Against Castro

On October 10, in spite of calls from a faction of policymakers to lift sanctions against Cuba, President George W. Bush strengthened the U.S. position towards Castro's regime. While this reaffirmation of a strong stand against Castro's dictatorship was made in the name of the captive Cuban populace, it also serves to protect American security. A hard line on sanctions can serve to prevent Castro from regenerating his efforts to support insurgents and terrorists abroad.

 

Castro's Rebuff of Earlier Demands
A year and a half ago, on Cuban Independence Day, President Bush announced his New Cuba Initiative, challenging dictator Fidel Castro to allow free and fair elections, permit citizens to freely assemble and express themselves, and ease restrictions on private enterprise.  In exchange, Bush promised to lift sanctions on trade and travel, matching Castro step-for-step.

 

Castro's response was to ignore the President's proposal and jail some 80 independent human rights activists and journalists.  These actions drew criticism from the European Union, whose aid Castro renounced, and derision from former supporters around the world.

 

To date, Castro hasn't changed his policies, yet the U.S. travel industry and agribusiness is pressuring a growing number of Congressmen to lift sanctions against the Cuban regime.

 

Reaffirming a Hard Line
On October 10, President Bush put some teeth into his Cuba policy.  In a Rose Garden speech, he announced measures that would:

  • Tighten enforcement against unlicensed U.S. travel to the island through the Department of Homeland Security,
  • Institute a new lottery system to encourage legal immigration to the United States,
  • Initiate more effective public diplomacy to reach the Cuban people, and
  • Establish a new commission, headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Mel Martinez, to develop a post-Castro engagement policy.

While such measures aren't likely to hasten Castro's downfall any more than other strategies attempted throughout the 44 years that Castro has been in power, they serve a critical purpose. They will cut off some cash flow to the regime and send a signal of solidarity to European and Latin American allies who are now beginning to take stands against Castro's continued captivity of the Cuban people.

 

Sanctions and American Security
For the U.S. hardline approach to work, the Bush Administration must be honest.  While couched in terms of helping Cubans gain freedom, the real reason for sanctions is to keep the regime from regenerating its ability to support insurgents and terrorists in other countries.

 

That capacity withered with the end of the Soviet Union and its $5 billion annual subsidies to the island.  Nonetheless, cheap oil flowing from Venezuela and rhetorical support from neo-populist leaders in Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina have given top Cuban officials hope that the time is ripe for a return to Marxist revolution in the Western Hemisphere.

 

Congressional backers of lifting trade and travel restrictions on Cuba, likewise, have not given up hope. They believe that American tourist dollars and loans will soften the regime and coax it into America's sphere of influence.  Thus, the President's tough approach may amount to throwing down the gauntlet for harsh new fight on Capitol Hill over sanctions.

 

While to those who look for a "fresh" approach in dealing with an eccentric, senile dictator the President's speech may seem overblown and dated, it is still the wisest course.  Only sustained pressure, both from within Cuba and on a broad international scale, has the potential to open space for Cuba's democrats and to contain the security threat that Castro's regime continues to pose for the hemisphere.

 

Before the President's address, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice poignantly stated that the United States must "hold the flame for those who are not yet free"; but, in truth, there is more at stake.  Cuba still supports terrorists and revolutionaries, and Castro's underlings still think dictatorship has a future.  It's time to prove them wrong.

About the Author

Stephen Johnson Senior Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

Related Issues: Latin America