CubaNews / November 2007
By Larry Luxner
For the 16th year in a row, the United Nations General Assembly has overwhelmingly voted to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
This year’s tally was the most lopsided ever, with 184 countries supporting the Oct. 30 resolution and only four — the United States, Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands — opposing it. One country abstained: Micronesia.
Interestingly, the combined population of the three Pacific island nations that didn’t support the resolution is 219,000 — slightly less than that of the Miami suburb of Hialeah.
As far as Israel, which gets more than $3 billion in annual economic and military assistance from Washington, the last thing it wants to do is offend the Bush administration by opposing its Cuba policy. Even so, the Jewish state has extensive business ties with Havana, with private Israeli companies investing heavily in Cuban agriculture and real-estate ventures.
That leaves the United States virtually alone in justifying its 45-year-old embargo.
Not even Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic — the three countries praised by President Bush as “vital sources of support and encouragement to Cuba’s brave democratic opposition” — support current U.S. policy. And the single abstention by Micronesia is a far cry from 1992, when the UN condemned the embargo by a vote of 59-3, with 71 countries abstaining.
“The United States has ignored, with arrogance and political blindness, the 15 resolutions adopted by this General Assembly calling for the lifting of the blockade against Cuba,” said Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque.
The UN vote in New York came little more than a week after Cuba’s one-party islandwide elections, and only six days after a speech by President Bush in Washington that puzzled most people and pleased only a few.
Bush surprised everyone by giving his first major policy address on Cuba in four years not in the White House or Miami, where previous speeches were given, but at the State Department, flanked by families of dissidents.
Even though an ailing Fidel Castro stepped down from power more than a year ago, Bush promised that the hardline stance he adopted when taking office would continue until he leaves the White House in early 2009.
In his address, Bush proposed allowing non-governmental organizations and faith-based groups to donate computers to the Cuban people — but only if the Castro regime gives them unrestricted Internet access.
He also countered Cuba’s offer of medical school training to disadvantaged American youth by offering Cuban students a college education. But Bush conceded these were non-starters.
“We’ve made similar offers before, but they’ve been rejected out of hand by the regime,” he said.
Criticized as nothing new, the president’s speech was reprinted by Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper Granma,with only a few details edited out; in addition, a 15-minute segment of the speech was broadcast on TV, a highly unusual move that had even veteran Cuba-watchers puzzled.
That Granma would rip the speech apart was no surprise, but it also earned the scorn of many U.S. newspapers large and small — ranging from USA Today to California’s Ventura County Star — which see current U.S. policy on Cuba as hypocrisy, especially compared to the positive ties Washington seeks to cultivate with two other communist regimes, Vietnam and China.
In an Oct. 25 editorial titled “Same old, same old,” the Baltimore Sun accused Bush of “conveniently ignoring the fact that U.S. policy toward Cuba has done little to spur a revolt” on the island of 11.3 million inhabitants.
“Decades of isolation, and his administration’s toughening of the policy, haven’t lessened Fidel Castro’s hold on power or diminshed the influence of his brother Raúl, now serving as the de facto president since Mr. Castro took ill a year ago,” it said.
“Indeed, the only Cubans who have benefited from U.S. policy are the thousands of refugees who are given a free pass to live here.”
Said the Los Angeles Times: “Bush may be too unimaginative to try a new policy toward Cuba, but the next president shouldn’t be. For starters, the U.S. should allow Americans to travel freely to Cuba, as the only reliable way to circumvent Castro’s information blockade ... the indiscriminate U.S. embargo, however, only hurts the Cuban poor.”
Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, called the Bush address “ill-informed and unwise.”
“There is a debate already starting in Cuba about its future, and the government is already exploring reforms,” she said. “While we don’t know how extensive these reforms might be, we do know that the president’s policy keeps the U.S. on the sidelines as this debate takes place on the island. Our allies in Europe and the Hemisphere have a very different policy, because they know better.”
The Cuban American Commission for Family Rights took a similarly dim view of the speech, pointing out that Bush made not a single mention of the “cruel restrictions” he imposed in 2004. Those restrictions limit Cuban family visits to once every three years.
“The issue of family separation is probably the most pressing and urgent problem facing Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits,” said the commission’s president, Alvaro Fernández. “While he ignored this emergency, all we heard from President Bush was more of the same old rhetoric.”
In the days before Bush’s address, speculation was rampant that the president might announce a relaxation of the 2004 regulations.
But no policy change was ever discussed, according to the Miami Herald, which quoted people familiar with internal discussions at the White House.
Only some anti-Castro exiles were happy with the address.
“It was not a surprise to any of us that he stood firm on his convictions because his policies have always been consistent toward Cuba,” Ninoska Pérez Castellón, director of the Cuban Liberty Council, told the Herald.
Pérez is a talk-show host with Miami’s fiercely anti-Castro Radio Mambí, and was among a select group of 10 Cuban exiles who met with Bush in Miami Oct. 12, two weeks before his speech at the State Department.
Jaime Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS), said a key audience of the speech was State Department employees.
Suchlicki told CubaNews that Bush is unhappy with the State Department’s implementation of his Cuba policy; the president believes State has not done enough to persuade allies to follow Washington’s direction on Cuba or help dissidents on the island. “He doesn’t want the status quo,” Suchlicki said. “He wants to push the envelope.”
In his talk, Bush encouraged dissidents on the island to redouble their efforts and Cubans — even those in the military, police and government — to “rise up to demand liberty.”
Brian Latell, a senior analyst at ICCAS and an expert on the Cuban military, said the Bush speech marked the first time in the en-tire history of U.S. relations with Cuba since 1959 that a president made public overtures to Cuban military and security personnel.
“Seeking to enlist at least some of them as agents of democratic change, Bush said that Cuba ‘must find a way to reconcile and forgive those who have been part of the system, but who do not have blood on their hands. They are victims too,’” noted Latell. Bush also called on foreign governments to contribute to a “Freedom Fund for Cuba” which would give grants to entrepreneurs on the island after all vestiges of its current government are gone.
“The operative word in our dealings with Cuba is not stability. The operative word is freedom,” he said. “Now is the time to support democratic movements growing on the island. Now is the time to stand with the Cuban people as they stand up for their liberty.” Joe García, vice-president of NDN and a prominent Democratic Party activist in Miami exile circles, said Bush deliberately provoked the Cuban government, which condemned and ridiculed the speech as expected.
“It’s a tired, old policy that plays to the most intransigent elements of the Cuban-American community,” he told CubaNews, noting that restless State Department officials and conservatives “who wanted something new on Cuba” gave Bush the impetus for the speech.
But García said that instead of adopting their ideas, Bush used the speech to shore up Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his brother Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. Both lawmakers are Cuban-American hardliners who may face tough re-election races next year.
Even the Cuban American National Foundation was critical of the speech.
“While we welcome the president’s intentions and ideas…they must also be supported by concrete actions,” a CANF statement said.
The foundation suggested ending restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba, and allowing NGOs — including those that receive U.S. grants — to give money directly to dissidents on the island.
Washington-based journalist Ana Radelat, a veteran correspondent for CubaNews, contributed significantly to this article.