CubaNews / April 2008
By Larry Luxner
In 1958, when he was 13 years old, Col. Larry Wilkerson visited Cuba with his grandmother for the first time.
“She was one of the most influential people in my life,” recalled the ex-soldier. “She said to me as I was getting off the boat in Havana, ‘You’ll see a lot of gambling houses, and houses of ill repute. Don’t go into any of them.”
Half a century later, following an illustrious career closely linked with that of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Wilkerson recently made it back to Cuba for a two-week fact-finding mission.
As with his previous trip, Wilkerson was accompanied by influential people — and came away more convinced than ever that his old boss was right.
“I can’t tell you how many times Colin Powell and I talked about Cuba,” Wilkerson, 63, recalled in a recent interview with CubaNews.
“He might disavow everything I say now, but his exact words were: ‘This is the dumbest policy on the face of the Earth.’ We talked about it when he was joint chiefs of staff, when I worked for him in a private capacity, and when he became secretary of state.”
Why, then, did Colin Powell end up chairing the White House Committee for Assistance to a Free Cuba — which was crafted by hardliners Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, and whose final report urged not an end to the embargo but an even stronger crackdown against travel and remittances to Cuba?
“Well, he had North Korea, Iran, Iraq, China, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney [to deal with], and Cuba was at the bottom of the list,” Wilkerson explained. “He knew that Florida had 27 electoral votes, and that President Bush owed debts to people who had exploited the Cuban-American lobby in order to get into the White House. These people — Ros-Lehtinen, Díaz-Balart, Martínez, Menendez — have a lock on U.S.-Cuba policy and it’s time we broke that lock. But Colin Powell was not going to forfeit the capital he had.
“They wanted to use Taiwan and stick it in the face of Beijing. We might have had a war because of that,” he continued. “But Bush had good economic instincts with regard to China. The answer is you can only do so much, and Cuba is not high enough to rate the political capital. But if it affects foreign policy and you use it as a tool, you can elevate it to the point where it is worth the expenditure of political capital. The Cuban-American lobby is losing its hold on these voters, and I think the time is propitious to make these kinds of changes.”
While his former boss earns big bucks making speeches, Wilkerson has become an academic. He’s now with George Washington University’s Honors Program, where he lectures undergraduate students on national security decision-making since World War II. He also teaches a graduate course at William & Mary College on case studies in power.
Wilkerson left the State Department on Jan. 19, 2005, and became a private citizen. But he didn’t go quietly into the night. The turning point for him came when Foggy Bottom learned in advance that potentially damaging photos of U.S. prisoner abuse of Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib were about to be released to the media.
“The tradition for a soldier is that you don’t speak out. But when I encountered the detainee abuse issue and some of the truth that was beginning to come out, I couldn’t hold my peace any longer,” he said. “The abuse issue weighed heavily on me. My wife kept telling me that my obligation to my country was stronger than to anyone I worked with.”
Wilkerson became vocal in his opposition to the war in Iraq, publicly accusing Cheney and Rumsfeld of forming a “cabal” to hijack American foreign policy. But the former soldier also started paying more attention to another region of the world where he thinks the United States has stumbled badly: Latin America.
“We’re not using our power very well in general, and certainly not vis-a-vis Latin America. The last time we had an effective foreign policy regarding Latin America was on Sept. 11, 2001, the day Colin Powell was in Lima, Peru, attending an OAS meeting on regional security.
“We occasionally send a hospital ship there, or we put National Guard reserves in Honduras to build this school or that school, but the fact is we pay very little attention to Latin America and I think that’s a grievous mistake. Latin Americans today are writing us off.”
And nowhere is Washington more off-base than with regard to Cuba, where in mid-February, 81-year-old Fidel Castro resigned after nearly half a century as president. He was quickly replaced by younger brother Raúl, 76.
“Unlike what happened most of the time under his brother, I believe Raúl will empower the ministries in Cuba’s bureaucracy to begin examining ways to make the average person’s life in Cuba better,” said Wilkerson.
“Since he’ll only be there for a very short time, it’s very important who he grooms — whether it’s individually or collectively — to take over the reins of leadership. At the same time, there could be a scramble for power.
“If it’s orchestrated smartly and wisely, we might look down the road a few years and see a collective leadership in power, a stable, functioning government kind of like what Deng Xioping began in China.”
How the United States responds depends a lot on who will be occupying the White House this time next year. Virtually no one expects an improvement in bilateral relations as long as Bush remains in office.
“I hope the new president, whoever he or she is, will recognize the potential for a relationship with Cuba,” Wilkerson told us. “We should conduct a policy review on how to open that relationship, recognizing each other’s sovereignty and be willing to accept shortcomings on the Cuban side.
“Both [Sens. Barack] Obama and Hillary [Clinton] have the intellectual power to conduct a review and begin to amend our policy. They are also more able to think in new terms, Obama more so than Hillary.”
And if Sen. John McCain wins?
“I don’t want him to win, because I think it’ll be a step back. It would be dangerous for this country,” said Wilkerson. “I don’t think he’s capable of thinking in 21st century terms. He’s a Cold War warrior, but he doesn’t bring intellectual power to the Oval Office that we need right now in order to reshape our approach to the world.”
He added: “Cuba is something the next president could turn around in six months. We’re not talking about Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan here. We’re talking about a small country of 11 million people with whom we’ve had the most absurd policy for the last 50 years.
“These travel restrictions are onerous. In fact, they’re downright inhuman,” he pointed out. “It’s unconstitutional to prohibit you and and me from traveling to Cuba. I can travel to Pyongyang, but not to Havana. That’s absurd. I think 50 years is enough time to understand that our Cuba policy has failed.”
Even more troubling, said Wilkerson, is the idea that U.S. national security is being hurt by what he calls “our idiotic Cuba policy.”
“The amount of time counterterrorist entities are spending just on enforcing the new restrictive Cuba laws is distracting from their ability to focus on more serious issues. It takes time away from finding people who are here for more nefarious purposes,” he said.
“I am also not happy with the fact that we may have the prospect of China drilling for oil on Cuba’s continental shelf, which is very close to Florida. Currents are such that if there were a medium-sized oil spill, or God forbid a really big one, most of that would wind up on Florida’s eastern seaboard.”
Yet 10 successive presidents have treated Cuba as a threat to this country.
In 2004, the Bush administration — backed by the trio of powerful GOP Cuban-American lawmakers from South Florida that includes Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Díaz-Balart and his brother Mario Díaz-Balart — approved some of the toughest laws ever aimed at depriving the Castro regime of dollars.
These included sharply limiting the number and type of Americans who could visit Cuba, and reducing the frequency of family visits to the island from once every year to once every three years.
That outraged some elements of the South Florida exile community which traditionally backed a tough line against Havana.
“I have been fishing and hunting with some very powerful people in the Republican Party, who laugh at the idea of Cuba being a threat to the United States,” said Wilkerson. “What Bush did in 2004 was for political purposes, but they don’t know how to get out of it. This is a case of a policy being dictated by a few people in Florida.”
So what does Wilkerson recommend?
“A very carefully orchestrated lifting of the embargo, in accordance with a strategy of ultimate rapproachment,” he told CubaNews. “It might take 3-5 years to implement, but right away, I would eliminate travel restrictions. And I would lift the embargo at least for agricultural goods and petroleum exploration.
“I’d give Cubans visas to visit this country, and I’d start a more robust program of sharing anti-drug and counterterrorism policies and information,” he said, adding that “the U.S. Interests Section in Havana tells me the best partner we have in counternarcotics is Cuba. They’re even a better partner than Mexico. I think the swiftest way to take the wind out of the sails of Hugo Chávez is a rapproachment with Cuba.”
In the meantime, Powell’s old friend and confidante argues that the continued detention of terrorist suspects at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo is an enduring source of embarrassment throughout the region.
Wilkerson said the U.S. “as long as a year ago exhausted the real intelligence potential” of the 300 or so detainees still being held at this tropical prison in eastern Cuba.
Furthermore, he’s convinced “we had people there we knew were innocent, and were working furiously to try and repatriate them so there wouldn’t be any lingering evidence.”
Many of them, he concluded, had no connection to terrorism but were simply swept up in Pakistan or Afghanistan, and incarcerated based on false assumptions and innuendos — without any kind of status review process on the ground.
“What are you going to do with these people once you divorce them from the rule of law? Are you prepared to keep them in Gitmo until they’re 70, 80, 90 years old? The answer that came back from Donald Rumsfeld was, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Wilkerson added: “They do have some hard-core, front-line terrorists down there. But if the government takes a blanket approach to this, they’re gonna lose them. So they’re clearly willing to punish innocent people to keep the bad guys under lock and key.
“I think we should make a good-faith effort to determine who’s less than hard-core, and either release them or repatriate them. Let that country deal with whoever they may be.”