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Caleb McCarry's mission: Coordinating Cuba's 'transition'
CubaNews / October 2005

By Larry Luxner

The most controversial thing about Caleb Charles McCarry is his job title: McCarry is the U.S. State Department’s brand-new “Cuba transition coordinator.”

Never before has the federal government hired a full-time bureaucrat to help “hasten the end of the Castro regime” and deal with its aftermath. The very idea of such a position infuriates officials in Havana — as well as a number of critics here at home.

“It is blatant intervention in the internal affairs of another state,” fumed former U.S. diplomat Wayne Smith in an interview with the Associated Press. “They talk about how we are going to oversee and facilitate the transition. Who gives us that right?”

Washington consultant Antonio Martínez, a board member of the Latin America Working Group, calls McCarry’s appointment “foolish and counterproductive.”

“This is not the most effective or helpful way to improve relations between the United States and Cuba,” Martínez told CubaNews. “This model is patterned after Iraq — we had a transition coordinator there, too. More than 70% of Cuba’s population has known only the embargo, nothing else. So this appointment won’t offer anything meaningful that the Cuban people can connect with.”

Such criticism doesn’t faze McCarry, who granted CubaNews an exclusive interview earlier this month in Washington. During our 30-minute meeting — tape-recorded at the State Department’s request — McCarry discussed his objectives in broad terms without giving away too many specific details.

“My mission is to get up every day and think about helping the Cuban people free themselves from the dictatorship,” the former Capitol Hill staffer told us. “My mandate is to be creative in doing so, and work with my colleagues here in the State Department and with other agencies on the commission.”

That would be the Commision for Assis-tance to a Free Cuba, which in May 2004 presented a 423-page report to President Bush.

Headed by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, the commission’s “core group members” were the secretaries of Treasury, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development and Homeland Security, along with the assistant to the president for national security affairs and the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Among its many recommendations was the creation of a Cuba transition coordinator that would — in the words of the report’s executive summary — oversee everything from “improving U.S. outreach to Cuban civil society” and “breaking the information blockade” to “undermining tourism” and “denying other sources of revenue to the Castro regime.”

Mauricio J. Claver Carone is executive director of the Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy Corp., a nonprofit organization that lobbies to keep the embargo in place. He says McCarry’s appointment “definitely shows the Bush administration’s willingness” to give Cuba the full-time attention it deserves.

“They’re willing to act on their words, and Caleb is well-versed in the policy,” said Claver, a longtime Bush supporter. “I see Caleb’s role as piercing through the bureaucracy and concentrating on [current] as well as post-Castro implementation. It’s a challenging role, but if anyone can do it, it’s Caleb.”

Fidel Castro had already been in power for two years when McCarry, 44, was born in Plainfield, a small town in western Massachusetts. He graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1983 with a degree in Spanish literature, then spent more than a decade at the Washington-based Center for Democracy, which bills itself as a bipartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing democracy to the world.

In 1997, McCarry joined the House of Representatives’ Committee on International Relations as a professional staff member, working for Rep. Ben Gilman (D-NY). Four years later, when Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL) took over the committee following Gilman’s retirement, McCarry became staff director at the Sub-committee on the Western Hemisphere.

McCarry held that post until this summer, when he was appointed to his current position in a July 28 televised ceremony presided over by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“The job I have is transition coordinator for a free Cuba,” he said. “As such, I am the senior U.S. official in charge of this effort, planning for U.S. support to encourage and then assist a genuine transition to political and economic freedom for the people of Cuba. We’re going to be looking at where we are, and examining what additional steps we can take to help hasten the transition.”

According to the commission’s report, “the Castro dictatorship is pursuing every means at its disposal to survive and perpetuate itself through a succession strategy from Fidel Castro to Raúl Castro and beyond.

“Its goal is that the unelected and undemocratic communist elite now in power remain so indefinitely. The United States rejects the continuation of a communist dictatorship in Cuba, and this commission recommends measures to focus presure and attention on the ruling elite so that succession by this elite or any one of its individuals is seen as what it would be: an impediment to a democratic and free Cuba.”

As such, the Bush administration — acting on the commission’s suggestions — has already slashed family visits by Cuban-Ameri-\cans to the island to once every three years and has excluded aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and cousins in an effort to further limit such visits.

It has eliminated a provision that allows visitors to bring back $100 worth of Cuban rum, cigars and other souvenirs, and has severely clamped down on Cuba-related academic and cultural exchanges.

Meanwhile, Bush has stepped up Radio and TV Martí broadcasts to Cuba, boosted aid to dissidents and has dramatically increased fines against Americans who travel to Cuba illegally or fail to respond to written inquiries about their trips in a timely fashion.

So, we asked McCarry, how much tougher on Castro can the White House get, short of a military invasion?

If McCarry knows, he isn’t saying.

“I can’t really give details on that yet,” he told us. “This is a presidential commission, chaired by the secretary of state. It is ongoing. The commission will reconvene to review where we are, with regard to the recommendations in the report.”

McCarry declined to say when that review might take place, hinting only that it’ll be “in the not-too-distant future.”

Unlike many Bush administration officials and members of Congress who support the embargo, McCarry has actually traveled to Cuba once — a 10-day trip in 1998.

“I went with Roger Noriega for the Pope’s visit, and that was my first and last time,” he said. “I was struck by what a complete, totalitarian regime exists there. I remember one young Cuban man asked me, ‘do you know what this place is?’ I said ‘no, tell me.’ He said, ‘Have you read George Orwell’s 1984? Then you know what this place is.’”

McCarry said the visit left an indelible impression on him, and in a way prepared him for his current challenge.

“The saddest legacy of the revolution is the despair and hopelessness that people feel, particularly those born in the last 46 years,” he told CubaNews. “It’s not their fault they were born under the revolution.”

Officials in Havana beg to differ.

Bruno Rodríguez Parilla, vice-minister of foreign affairs, says Cuba has lost $82 billion in trade since U.S. sanctions were imposed in 1960, a year after Castro came to power.

“We are talking about an economic war against our country. It is unfounded, unfair and, moreover, deeply illegal,” Rodríguez recently told AP, noting that if Americans really knew the truth about how much damage the embargo was causing, they’d demand for it to be lifted. “Americans can be continually deceived and manipulated, but eventually they arrive at the truth and they act.”

Yet McCarry insisted that this hoped-for “transition to democracy” is not being forced on Cuba against the will of the Cuban people.

“This is not an imposition. It’s a genuine offer of support and a promise to the Cuban people who have suffered 46 years of dictatorship,” he stressed. “You have to understand that a genuine transition must be led by the Cubans themselves, and it is our role to offer significant support in a respectful way. How it will happen will be defined by the Cubans, but this is all very practical stuff that is fully consistent with all of our values.”

He added: “[After Castro is gone], the fundamental institutions of Cuban society will continue to function, including health-care and education. Very important will be helping Cubans overcome the legacy of corruption and ideological contamination which has impoverished the people. I believe the Cubans themselves will want to support good institutions in their country. It’s not a question of destroying and dispossessing.”

McCarry said he has a very small staff, and that “there really isn’t a specific budget attached to this office.” Funding comes from the federal government, primarily via USAID.

“This isn’t a large expansive bureaucracy that we’re setting up,” he said, adding that “the U.S. government already has plenty of resources involved in this effort.”

McCarry has held several meetings with leaders of Miami’s large and influential Cuban-American community, “listening to what they have to say.” He’s also spoken publicly about Cuba, most recently participating in a panel at Rice University. In addition, he’s met with several foreign ambassadors in an effort to bring other countries in line with Washington’s tough anti-Castro policy.

“We believe that not just the United States but all democratic governments should do the same, and we’re looking to them to support a genuine transition,” McCarry noted. But when we asked him to name a few of those countries, the State Department’s Cuba transition coordinator said he wasn’t prepared to go public on that just yet.

McCarry did, however, comment on the general perception that U.S.-Cuba relations are at their lowest point since the 1959 revolution, boldly suggesting that “relations be-tween the United States and the Cuban people — and their aspiration to be free — are at their highest point ever.”

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