CubaNews / June 2008
By Larry Luxner
Veteran Cuba-watchers and critics of U.S. policy are calling President Bush’s May 21 announcement that he’ll let Cuban-American exiles send cellphones to the island a “missed opportunity” for improved relations with the new government of Raúl Castro.
While no one is criticizing the decision itself to allow cellphones as one of the permitted items exiles may now send in their gift parcels to Cuba, the move was instantly ridiculed in Miami and Havana for its lack of imagination.
“It’s sort of our own version of a ration card,” said Dr. Julia Sweig, director for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, in a conference call. “It’s unfortunate and ungenerous to see such a tiny measure by the Bush administration.”
Sarah Stephens, director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy in the Americas, said the White House announcement accomplishes virtually nothing.
“At a time when we’re seeing real reforms in Cuba, President Bush is wrong to dismiss these changes as a cruel joke. He can do a lot more than sending cellphones to Cuba. He can send Americans to Cuba.”
The announcement came as both contenders for the presidency, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), spoke to Cuban-American exile groups in Miami.
Obama promised to lift all restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba if elected. McCain, meanwhile, defends the Bush administration’s policy and has given no indication he’d change anything if he wins the presidency in November. Neither candidate advocates ending the embargo outright, or even lifting the travel ban for tourists to Cuba.
Rep. Jeff Flake, who like McCain is a Republican from Arizona, said he wouldn’t expect the two men to do otherwise.
“It’s a bit like asking a presidential candidate to go to Iowa and reject all farm subsidies,” he quipped. “As soon as a candidate recognizes that the demographics have shifted, then you’re likely to see somebody break out.”
Flake, a staunch advocate of improved relations with Cuba despite the White House line, says he sees Bush’s cellphone announcement as “another missed opportunity.”
The lawmaker says it’s “simply wrong” that Cuban-Americans may now ship cellphones to their families on the island — but not clothing, soap, seeds or fishing equipment.
“It’s notable that President Bush spoke to one of the dissidents, Martha Beatríz Roque, who asked him to lift travel and remittance restrictions,” he said. “So if we’re expressing solidarity with the dissidents, we ought to listen to what they’re asking for.”
Added Peters: “Clearly, the message is that the Bush administration is willing to talk to dissidents, but not to listen to them.”
In Havana, the reaction to Bush’s speech was predictable.
“It was a decadent show, a speech irrelevant and cynical, an act of ridiculous propaganda,” Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque said in a press conference without specifically addressing the issue of cellphones. “Let him retire and leave the presidency.”
In any event, noted Peters, in real-world terms the president’s declaration won’t make much of a difference. “Any Cuban-American who wishes to send a cellphone to a relative in Cuba can do that anyway,” he said. “But the fact is that people from Miami have done so for some time, and were forced to violate the law in order to care for their families.”
What particularly disturbs Peters is Bush’s flippant attitude towards the economic and social reforms enacted since Raúl Castro took over the presidency of Cuba in February.
“Raúl has been in office just a few months. There’s no doubt the changes he’s made do not affect the fundamental issues of human rights in Cuba. But it’s wrong to trivialize and downplay them the way President Bush does.
“In Cuba, people are noticing the changes. There’s a clear political impact. For someone who now waits for a bus 10 minutes instead of an hour, that’s real, not cosmetic. Farmers can now cultivate more land and make more money, and that’s a real change.”
Furthermore, he said, “Raúl has created a lot of expectations, but for the first time, Cubans have a sense that their government is listening, and addressing some of their grievances. That puts Raúl in a much stronger position. It also makes the Bush administration’s characterization that the Cuban government is on its last legs particularly absurd.”