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Opposing views of ex-USINT diplomats frame Obama's policy dilemma on Cuba
CubaNews / February 2009

By Larry Luxner

In Havana, both occupied the same fifth-floor office as chief of the U.S. Interests Section. But in Miami, their suggestions on how the Obama administration should deal with Fidel and Raúl Castro seem to have little — if anything — in common.

On Jan. 23, retired career diplomats Vicki Huddleston and Jim Cason — speaking at a seminar organized by the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS) — offered diametrically opposing views that generally reflected the policies of the presidents they served.

A third diplomat, former State Department official Manuel Rocha, gave an especially in-sightful presentation calling for more openness toward Cuba in Washington. But because of his current job as a consultant for McDonald’s Corp., Rocha’s comments were off-the-record and cannot be included in this report.

ICCAS Director Jaime Suchlicki, who moderated the event, rarely makes a secret of his distaste for ending the embargo or even relaxing current travel restrictions. At the Jan. 23 event, he insisted that Obama should “stay the course” when it comes to Cuba.

But Huddleston says that’s exactly the wrong approach.

“When I was on the plane coming down here, the woman sitting next to me asked why I was going to Miami,” said the former diplomat, who served in Havana from 1999 to 2002, a period coinciding mostly with the Clinton administration. “I told her, ‘to give a speech on Cuba.’ She asked me to tell her in one sentence what I was going to say, so I replied, ‘change the policy.’”

Huddleston, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, says the United States must understand that, for the foreseeable future, Raúl Castro is in charge. “Everybody in this room wants to see democracy, human rights and opportunities for the Cuban people to have a voice in their own government. We have no differences there,” she said. “The differences lie in how to get there.”

“I think that now, President Obama has the unique opportunity, the authority and the popular support to discard a policy of regime change that hasn’t worked for half a century — and replace it with a policy of critical and constructive engagement.”

That means the United States no longer aims to overthrow the Cuban government.

“We accept the reality, that the revolution is a fact. It can’t be unlived or changed. Accept that and engage Cuba on issues in our interest. By doing that, we put the onus for change on the Cuban government and take it away from Washington and Miami.”

Huddleston said that during the first 100 days of his administration, Obama could take a number of decisions to improve bilateral ties — regardless of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act which codified the embargo.

“The time-honored tradition of the president having the last say in foreign policy still exists, even with regard to Cuba. The president can design tactics, programs and activities that he feels would further the U.S. interest,” said Huddleston, who was famous during her stint as chief of USINT-Havana for handing out shortwave radios to average Cubans on the street.

“So President Obama has the authority, whether you like it or not, to do just about anything he wants on Cuba,” she said. “He could negotiate and even give back Guantánamo. He could change the ‘wet foot-dry foot’ policy or negotiate expropriated property claims, but we don’t expect him to do that.”

According to Huddleston, Obama would need Congressional approval to get rid of the embargo altogether, but not to dismantle it piecemeal.

“What Helms-Burton did in 1996 was codify the regulations of the embargo as they stood then. But it also gave executive authority for the president to modify or change the embargo. So the power to change the embargo was codified along with the regulations.”

Huddleston predicted that Obama’s “first basket of activities” would probably consist of lifting all travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans as promised.

He would also reinstate regulations that allow “people-to-people” and educational ex-changes, and encourage USINT-Havana to issue more visas for Cubans to travel for educational and cultural events.

Next on his to-do list would be a review of whether Cuba should remain on the list of terrorist-supporting states. In addition, said Huddleston, “he should also license communications equipment [to be sold to Cuba]. By not doing so, we are simply helping Cuban state security keep TV, radio and information out of the hands of Cuban citizens.”

The former diplomat, who ended her long career as U.S. ambassador to Mali, said it’s crucial that the United States act now in order to counter the growing clout of other countries whose interests may not coincide with those of Washington.

“The United States has very little influence in Cuba now. Russia’s back, China’s strong, and Venezuela, Brazil and Spain are all there. Cuba has excellent relations around the world. If we want to have influence in the future, then we need to be dealing with the Western Hemisphere, and with Cuba,” she said. “I think we have a chance now to make this dream of a free Cuba come true.”

Keep dreaming, says Cason.

The former USINT-Havana chief, who re-tired from the Foreign Service after serving as U.S. envoy to Paraguay, thinks “improving relations with Cuba should not be a goal. That will come about when we see that Castro has decided to put Cuba on a democratic path.” Cason’s talk focused strictly on travel — a subject he’s clearly passionate about.

“Once again, we hear that more trade and travel will bring greater freedom to Cubans,” he said. “Some urge outright abandonment of what remains of the embargo, but most opponents focus on ending travel restrictions as the first step.”

Cason said such people typically offer four arguments: that flooding Cuba with Americans will “instill a yearning for democracy,” that spending by Americans will boost living standards, that something different must be tried because the embargo hasn’t worked, and finally, that Americans have a constitutio-nal right to travel wherever they wish.

“These arguments, in my opinion, are dead wrong and reflect our lack of understanding of what it’s like to live in a closed society. Most Americans have never experienced tota-litarianism, so they make assumptions that are not grounded in reality.”

Yet in his speech, Cason repeated a number of accusations that aren’t exactly grounded in reality.

“Cubans are forbidden from interacting with ordinary tourists and cannot accept publ-cations from abroad,” he claimed. “Only 103 hotels cater to foreign tourists, mainly in isolated areas. Havana, a city of 2.1 million people, has only 5,632 hotel rooms, meaning one tourist per 210 Cubans. Therefore, tourists can make no meaningful impact on Cuban society even if they were permitted to.”

In another accusation of questionable accuracy, Cason alleges that “tourists by and large stay at all-inclusive hotels. No tips are encouraged or permitted. Tourists can buy very little from average Cubans except sex.”

Apparently, Cason never visited the huge crafts and souvenir market located only a few blocks from USINT along Havana’s Malecón.

He continued: “The regime charges average Cubans the highest rack rate to stay in hotels. So foreigners will rarely encounter a regular Cuban in their hotels. If they leave their isolated enclaves at all, it’s a guided tour to a Potemkin village.”

Cason, who served as USINT-Havana chief under the Bush administration, was intensely disliked by the Castro regime — and by more than a few of his fellow foreign diplomats — for his brashness and belligerent style.

He said that in the last decade, more than 15 million foreigners have visited Cuba and the island has not opened up one bit.

“Now that Castro has Sugar Daddy Chávez supporting him, he need not liberalize. Travel has hardened the regime and increased its staying power rather than weakening it.”

He also claimed that tourism, trade and foreign investment had nothing to do with the downfall of communism in Eastern Europe — and that they won’t work in Cuba either.

“Few Americans speak Spanish well enough to hold a conversation,” said Cason, who, incidentally, speaks fluent Guaraní from his years in Paraguay. “The fact is that tourists go to Cuba for rum, sun, cigars and sex — not to spread democracy.”

And unlike the vast majority of Cuban-Americans, Cason is also adamantly opposed to once again allowing exiles unrestricted travel to the island of their birth, on the grounds that they won’t change anything either.

“Cuban-Americans may well have been a key factor in spreading a desire for democracy, but nothing has come of this,” he said.

“Returning Cuban-Americans are very cautious in what they bring with them, or what they do and say while on the island. They do not want to engage in prohibited behavior. They just stay out of trouble.”

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