CubaNews / November 2003
By Larry Luxner
Not every mid-level State Department official has had the honor of being personally singled out by Fidel Castro in an angry May Day speech before a million people in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución.
But that’s what happened earlier this year, when Castro scolded Kevin Whitaker, coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs, for warning Dagoberto Rodríguez, head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, that continued airline hijackings from Cuba constituted a serious threat to U.S. national security.
It’s an honor he’d just as soon do without.
Whitaker, 46, has never actually met Fidel, though he spends a great deal of time trying to predict what the 77-year-old dictator might do now that, as he says, “the regime is on its last legs” and Cuba’s relations with both the United States and Western Europe have reached their lowest point in years.
“Our policy goal in Cuba is to seek a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy, a government characterized by respect for human rights and open markets, and a Cuba which is a good neighbor in the hemisphere,” said Whitaker. “I’d assert that this goal is widely shared in the United States, and in Europe as well — especially in Europe. People realize this is an irredeemable regime.”
On Oct. 24, Whitaker spent two hours outlining his views in a briefing at the Bildner Center for Western Hemisphere Studies in New York. The event, which was covered exclusively by CubaNews, attracted 80 or so professors, students and interested citizens who for the most part oppose current U.S. policy towards Cuba.
“The Western Hemisphere has clearly de-fined what sort of governments we think ought to exist here,” Whitaker told his audience. “The first article of the Inter-American Democratic Charter says the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy, and that their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it. The Charter doesn’t say all people except Cubans have the right to live in a democracy.”
Whitaker began his current job in Septem-ber 2002; prior to that, he served as deputy for Cuban affairs, and as a political counselor in Nicaragua. Other assignments in his 24-year career include serving as a desk officer for El Salvador and France, as well as working as a political officer at U.S. embassies in Honduras and Jamaica.
He says Castro’s arrest and jailing of 75 dissidents earlier this year — as well as the execution of three black men who attempted to hijack a ferry to Florida — “came as no surprise” to State Department analysts.
“I was entirely unsurprised by their action. In fact, we had been anticipating it for some time,” he said. “But for our friends in Europe, it was a revelation. That’s why you saw such a drumbeat of criticism. The world rejected this repression, and continues to reject it.”
The cause of Castro’s crackdown is fairly obvious, said Whitaker: economic decay, and a growing civil-society movement led by Oswaldo Payá, founder of the Varela Project.
“This regime is tired. It’s used up,” he said. “They have no more economic answers, and no more political answers. They offer no hope to their people, so Cubans are acting on their own to achieve change.
“One of Payá’s strengths is that [the Varela Project] is strictly within the law. Their argument is not trying to convince people that these freedoms are necessary, but that what they’re doing is legal.”
Whitaker pointed out that in Amnesty International’s recent 43-page report on the March crackdown, only four pages are devoted to the U.S. embargo and travel restrictions. All the rest deals with repression and human-rights abuses within Cuba.
“Why would the regime do such a thing, in the context of increased efforts to do away with the embargo — knowing that votes in Congress were ever-bigger on their side — and that it was bound to have a reaction in Europe?” Whitaker challenged his audience. “Whey would they jeopardize those initiatives by arresting these people, subjecting them to show trials and throwing them in prison?”
Answering his own question, Whitaker said: “They were afraid. They saw that people who were working for change in Cuba constituted the basis of a civil society, and that is the greatest threat to a regime.”
In May 2002, Payá submitted just over 11,000 signatures to Cuba’s National Assem-bly, urging that body to declare a referendum on “fundamental freedoms and free enterprise” (see our exclusive interview with Payá in CubaNews, May 2003, page 8).
Even so, the Varela Project — promoted by former President Jimmy Carter during his widely publicized visit to Cuba last year — alarmed Castro enough to organize a counter-petition signed by 98% of all Cuban adults.
“This is a laughable effort, which everyone saw through. Payá was not arrested, but his provincial organization was completely destroyed by the regime,” he said, noting that just last month, Payá delivered another 14,000 signatures — half of which had been collected after the crackdown.
“That makes me very optimistic about the future,” said Whitaker. “We’re in the end game. This is the end of the Cuban regime. Civil society is building itself today, despite Castro. Now is not the time to engage in unilateral concessions, but to press forward for a democratic transition in Cuba.”
For this reason, said the career diplomat, President Bush strongly opposes any lifting of the travel ban against Cuba — let alone the embargo.
“Travel restrictions are one of the policy tools we have available to us. What the Cuban regime seeks is economic resources. The jewel in the crown would be American tourists. From our point of view, it doesn't make sense to give a big payoff to a dictatorial regime which is on its last legs.”
The proof, he insisted, is that “over 10 million people have visited Cuba in the last decade from Europe, where commitment to democracy and human rights is no less than our own, yet Cuba is not a freer place.”
He added: “We’d love to see free use of the Internet and e-mail so there could be more and better interchanges between Cubans and folks from democratic societies. But eight months ago, Cuba shut down all Hotmail ac-counts. This clearly demonstrated the Cuban regime’s fear of modern communications techniques, and its fear of the Cuban people.”
Whitaker discounted recent allegations by Cuba’s foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, that the U.S. embargo — which has been in place for over 40 years — has cost Cuba some $181 billion in principal and interest.
“They can buy whatever they want, from whoever they want,” he said. “For example, if the Cubans can’t buy tetracycline from the U.S. they can buy it from Germany. This is not a serious argument. The point is that Castro wants something to beat up on. If it weren’t for the embargo, it would be something else.”
He added: “It’s a tool that’s been in place since the Eisenhower administration. If the embargo is going to go away, we should get something for it. Why give away something for nothing?”
Another “tool” that’s been in place for some time is Cuba’s inclusion on the State Department’s list of terrorist-supporting states — something Whitaker suggested is unlikely to change anytime soon.
“The way a country comes off the lists is defined by statutes. That’s the way it is, and Cuba has done none of the steps required. You have to formally renounce the use of terrorism. My view is that we should provide Cuba with a list of what needs to be done, and then let them chew it over.”
Besides supporting terrorism, Whitaker says, “we continue to believe that Cuba has at least a limited offensive biological weapons research and development effort.” But he insisted the Bush administration will not push for “regime change” in Cuba a la Iraq.
“Both Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said we have no intention of using military force against Cuba, and we offered the Cubans a letter from Chief of Mission Jim Cason to be published in Cuba’s state press repeating these remarks so that the Cuban people would not be deceived, and to put this issue to rest. The regime refused to publish that letter.
“The Cuban government’s assertions that we were seeking to invade is all a Cuban effort to create a sense of fear and confusion among the population. The first arrests of the dissidents were made as the bombs were dropping on Baghdad. They did this under the cover of Iraq, hoping the world wouldn’t pay attention. They failed miserably, because the world was watching, and has condemned their actions.”
What the White House is doing, he said, is stepping up support of Cuban “civil society” groups such as independent libraries, journalists and human-rights organizations.
“Holding an election is not the same as having a democracy. What a real democracy consists of is those millions of independent, uncontrolled civil society transactions that underpin democracy. What Cuba lacks is an independent civil society. What we do is support people who are taking bold action on their own. We provide books, videotapes, radios, tape recorders for journalists. This is what the regime cited as the grounds for arresting these people.”
Asked by hostile questioner in the audience how the United States can justify spending money to train Cuban journalists when black and Hispanic children at home are “malnourished and illiterate,” Whitaker replied calmly: “We trained thousands of journalists in Central America in the 1980s, so it’s consistent with U.S. policy over the years. We have an obligation. It’s our policy to promote democracy. It is not our policy to stand back, fold our arms and say we hope that it’ll occur.”
Whitaker bases his optimism not only on the flowering of a civil society movement in Cuba, but also on the island’s continuing economic difficulties.
After the economic crash of the early 1990s, he said, the Castro regime took a number of “limited reforms” including the opening up of certain sectors to foreign investment and legalizing the use of dollars, which had the effect of stimulating cash remittances from the United States — now estimated at around $800 million a year.
“What the regime has done since then is systematically work against all those re-forms,” he said. “They’ve dismissed foreign investors and insulted the leaders of Spain and Italy. The Cuban regime has consistently gone after very small private enterprises like paladares and casas particulares — except for the ones run by the military.
In summary, he says, “the Castro regime understands that the economy is bottoming out again and they don’t care. They’ve taken bone-headed economic decisions in order to retain control.”
While Whitaker is against allowing U.S. tourism to Cuba, he says letting Cubans send money to their families on the island isn’t the same — even though he acknowledges that such remittances indirectly help Castro stay in power.
“I don’t know how any government can say you can’t send money to your relatives,” he explained. “And what if we say it, and people do it anyway? After the Brothers to the Res-cue shootdown in 1996, the Clinton administration cut off remittances, and they continued to flow.”
Whitaker praised Bush’s Oct. 10 announcement that an executive-branch Cuba transition committee would be established under the direction of Powell and Mel Martínez, a former board member of the Cuban American National Foundation and currently secretary of housing and urban development.
“I think we want to move quickly on that. We’re already had meetings on scope, membership activities,” he said, offering few details. “The concept is sound: We need to be prepared. There’s going to be a transition [in Cuba], and people will ask what the United States is prepared to do to ensure the safety of our borders.”
Whitaker added: “I don’t want to wait for the physical demise of Fidel Castro. I want it to happen before that.”