U.S. policy can't stay on square one forever

June 23, 2005

Marifeli Perez-Stable, Miami Herald

The following article, which appears in today's Miami Herald, paraphrases Marifeli Perez-Stable's remarks at the Cuba Study Group luncheon briefing for Capitol Hill Staffers. The event, which was help on June 10, 2005 in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee room, was titled: U.S. Policy Towards Cuba: Trade, Human Rights and Democracy.

U.S. Policy Can't Stay on Square One
Marifeli-Perez Stable, Inter-American Dialogue

Neither confrontation nor engagement has worked. Both imply dialogue, and Fidel Castro only knows harangue. Though differing in the short term, the United States and the European Union see eye-to-eye on the end-point: democracy in Cuba. If either the embargo or openness were jointly embraced, progress might be made.

But, there's no chance for the kinds of coordination that worked well against apartheid-era South Africa or pre-1989 Eastern Europe.

We can't stay on square one forever. After the funeral, we all will have to get it right so that -- peacefully, gradually -- Cuba moves in the right direction. But we can't wait until then to start getting it right.

My preference is the EU path. Since 1996, a so-called Common Position has marked EU policy toward the Cuban regime: no economic cooperation agreement until Havana takes meaningful steps on human rights. When 75 nonviolent opponents were summarily tried and sentenced to long prison terms in 2003, the EU imposed sanctions that boomeranged.

As the EU reduced the level of official contacts and invited dissidents to national-holiday parties, Castro cut off all contacts with European embassies. For 18 months, EU diplomats talked to one another and twiddled their thumbs. At Spain's behest, the Common Position was reinstated. Fourteen of the 75 had been freed, and EU representatives have since scheduled regular meetings with the opposition. On May 20, the Assembly for the Promotion of Civil Society met openly near Havana without interference. Two EU deputies and four Polish journalists were, however, expelled to prevent their attendance.

At the end of June, the Common Position will be reaffirmed. Its only logic is to maintain an open window to Cuba -- government officials, civil society and the opposition -- and, thus, be there already when the time comes. The EU has a better knowledge of Cuban society than the United States. That is no small benefit of engagement. Nobody today has any illusions of anything substantive happening while the comandante can still rant. At the same time, the EU will not hesitate to defend human rights. In April, the EU co-sponsored the U.S.-initiated resolution at the U.N. Human Rights Commission condemning Cuba's deplorable record.

In the 1990s, U.S. policy had two tracks: the embargo and people-to-people contacts. Since 2001, U.S. agricultural producers have carried on hefty, cash-only sales to Cuba. All else is rather somber, particularly regarding travel and remittances. Restrictions in June 2004 constitute an onerous emotional burden on Cuban Americans and their families. While all travel should be legal, that of Cuban Americans should be most of all. Whatever material benefits the regime might reap, nurturing family bonds is priceless.

The so-called soft track -- really, the one Castro fears most -- worked relatively well until Feb. 24, 1996, when the Cuban Air Force struck down two Brothers to the Rescue planes. The four pilots' unjustifiable homicide forced President Clinton to sign into law the harshest version of Helms-Burton, aka Helms-Castro. In 2002, President Bush gave a speech on May 20, Cuban Independence Day, that seemed to suggest a new approach. He said: ``If Cuba's government takes all the necessary steps to ensure that the 2003 elections are certifiably free and fair and if Cuba also begins to adopt meaningful market-based reforms, then -- and only then -- I will work with the U.S. Congress to ease the ban on trade and travel.'

Elections for Popular Power, a proto-legislature, are held on a regular basis. What if Washington and the EU had together pressured Havana to allow international observers? Castro would surely have given a frenzied No. The ball, though, would have been on his court, and that's what the United States should strive for but rarely does.

Miami is slowly changing. Up to 40 percent of Cuban Americans oppose the embargo or lean in that direction. Though more than half of the community, Cubans who arrived after 1980 -- especially in the past 15 years -- do not yet vote in sufficient numbers but will eventually. Forget Castro. Eleven million Cubans deserve a better policy now. Picking up where Bush left off in 2002 is a start.

Marifeli Pérez-Stable is vice president for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

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