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U.S. embargo against Cuba still defines bilateral ties, 50 years after its passage
CubaNews / January 2012

By Larry Luxner

A spirited debate between Colin Powell’s ex-chief of staff and a Cuban-born enemy of the Castro regime serves as yet another reminder how divisive the U.S. embargo of Cuba remains, 50 years after its implementation.

The Jan. 18 faceoff, sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Washington, D.C., was titled “Cuba: Is it Time for the United States to Normalize Relations and End the Sanctions?”

In attendance were 65 people, each of whom paid $10 or more to hear arguments that have been thrown around for years on the Washington think-tank circuit.

It featured embargo critic Col. Larry Wilkerson on one side, and Mike González — who supports a hardline Cuba policy — on the other. Seated between them was moderator Ginger Thompson, Washington correspondent for the New York Times and the newspaper’s former bureau chief in Mexico City.

It was a good thing too, because the exchanges between Wilkerson and González, while for the most part civil, got testy at times.

“If this were 1962 and I told you all that it was more likely the United States would elect a black man president than lift the embargo against Cuba, I bet you’d have called me crazy,” said Thompson, who’s covered U.S.-Cuba relations extensively.

“But here we are,” she told her audience. “The Berlin Wall is down, the Soviet Union has disappeared, and still we have the embargo in place. It remains almost as solid today as when it was established to break Fidel Castro’s hold on power. Five decades later, that goal remains unfulfilled. This is one of the most polarizing debates on Capitol Hill, and recent actions by the Obama administration [to relax Cuba-related travel and remittance regulations] have done little to please those on either side.”

For Mike González, vice-president of communications at the Heritage Foundation, this debate is deeply personal.

“I left Cuba at the age of 12, after my father died. I saw first-hand what it was like to live under that terrible regime. I remember how my teachers tried to get me to denounce my friend, my family and my church, which I would not do,” said an emotional González.

“Cuba went from a first-rate economy to a barter economy,” he continued. “I remember how my father had to trade whiskey and cigarettes for milk for his kids. I made a career all over the world as a reporter to defend freedom for that reason.”

Indeed, González spent 20 years as a journalist, 15 of them covering Europe and Asia for the Wall Street Journal. He left journalism to join the administration of President George W. Bush, eventually joining the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based outfit that’s known for its ultraconservative views.

“Communism didn’t work in Korea, it didn’t work in Germany. What makes you think it’s going to produce wealth in Cuba?” he said. “The Cuban economy is in ruins today not because of the embargo, because its socialist policies have failed.”

Wilkerson, who’s just returned from a trip to Havana, is a visiting professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Before being appointed Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005, Wilkerson was associate director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff under the directorship of Ambassador Richard N. Haass (2001-02).

A former director of the U.S. Marine Corps War College at Quantico, Va., he’s also taught at both the U.S. Naval War College and George Washington University.

“Two different Coast Guard attaches with the U.S. Interests Section in Havana told me during this last trip that when it comes to terrorism, counter-narcotics and every other illicit activity, their relationship with the Cuban military is the best in the Caribbean, even better than with Mexico,” said Wilkerson, who served 31 years in the Army.

“But our military wouldn’t like to publicize that because they feel like doing it on the sly will ultimately produce a more positive result than saying, ‘hey, we’re working with the Cubans.’”

Wilkerson, whom we profiled nearly four years ago (see CubaNews, April 2008, page 8), also mentioned the explosion of private restaurants, barber shops and other small businesses made possible by a series of recent reforms unveiled by President Raúl Castro.

“Col. Wilkerson was not the only foreigner in Cuba last week,” González retorted. “Mah-moud Ahmadinejad was there too — and not to go to the beach, and not as many middle-aged European men do, to seek sexual favors with young Cuban women. The organizing principle of the Cuban regime is anti-Americanism, the same which Ahmadinejad supports in Tehran. And that regime will be a very willing accomplice to any state or individual who means to do us harm.”

And despite the economic reforms that have undoubtedly given many Cubans hope for the future, “the dirty little secret about Raúl Castro is that he has unleashed a wave of violence and repression in the last six months,” said González.

“Damas en Blanco [Ladies in White] is a group of defenseless women who try to march to church on Sundays, but they’re beaten by goons bussed in by the regime. Two months ago, outside Cuba’s holiest shrine in Santiago de Cuba, a mob stripped them to the waist and dragged them through the streets.”

According to Havana human rights activist Elizardo Sánchez, the Castro regime arrested 4,123 people for political reasons in 2011 — an average of 11 a day.

“I agree with Col. Wilkerson. I want to normalize relations with Cuba as well, but only after the Castro regime gives its people the self-determination we all enjoy here,” said González. “I wouldn’t do it unilaterally, be-cause that would legitimize the regime and give them what they want.”

Wilkerson, an ardent critic of U.S. policy not only in Latin America but also the Middle East, said he’s in no rush to normalize ties either — because a sudden end to the embargo wouldn’t be in either country’s interests.

“I’d much rather see an incremental policy,” he said. “I don’t think Fidel wants the embargo lifted either. In fact, I think Ileana [Ros-Lehtinen, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee] and the Castro brothers are aiding and abetting each other.” Wilkerson said he was 13 years old when he visited Cuba for the first time, with his grandmother. As they were getting off the boat in Havana harbor, he recalled, “she told me I’d see lots of whorehouses and casinos. She said, don’t go into any of them.”

The problem today, he explained, is that Cuba policy isn’t a priority for an administration consumed with the war in Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear aspirations and continuing economic hardship here at home.

“People don’t care about Cuba, and you can’t blame them,” he said. “After all, we’ve got Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and a financial situation in this country that I think is as profound as the Great Depression. So it’s very difficult to get Americans’ attention about 11.4 million people living on an island 90 miles off the Florida Strait.”

Even more so in a presidential election year like 2012, said the retired colonel.

“Karl Rove once told Colin Powell, ‘Don’t touch Cuba because we want Florida’s 27 electoral votes.’ Dick Cheney also knew our Cuba policy was idiotic, but even he knew that you don’t touch Cuba policy. Anybody who doesn’t know that is simply smoking something. The Obama administration is the first to get into the White House without the hardline Cuban vote in Florida, so they have a little more flexibility with regard to that reality. However, it’s still a very difficult move for the Democrats to make.”

But when Wilkerson complained about “the money sloshing through Congress” from Cuban-American exile PACs to convince Democrats to oppose any relaxation of the embargo, that was too much for González.

“What about the powerful agriculture and tourism lobbies?” he asked. “The little money the Cuban-Americans can put up against these corporations is a pittance.” Wilkerson said that 50 years of blacklisting Cuba has done nothing to dislodge the Castro brothers from power. All it’s done, he said, is make life unbearable for average Cubans.

“That’s one of the reasons we changed our Burma policy. We were hurting the Burmese people badly by our sanctions and helping only the generals,” he noted.

“In Cuba’s case, we traded one dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who was a criminal, for another dictator who was a communist. But that’s history. Whether Cuba’s problems are a result of the embargo or not is irrelevant.”

González, whose Heritage Foundation bitterly opposes any attempts to weaken the em-bargo, agreed that U.S. policy hasn’t accomplished its stated goal. However, he says, that’s because it’s not international in scope.

“An embargo doesn’t work unless you’ve got the whole world behind it. That’s why apartheid ended in South Africa, which allowed less than 20% of the population — the white minority — to vote,” he said. “For 50 years, the Cuban regime has not allowed anyone to vote.”

Wilkerson, conceding his opponent’s point that a group of aging octogenarians runs the country, said that while he was in Havana, he met with younger Communist Party

“We’ve got to figure out a way to turn over the reins of power to these 40-year-olds, because there isn’t any way. All I’m after is a higher standard of living for the 11.4 million Cubans who couldn’t give a rat’s ass whose governing them.”

The comment sparked an immediate, angry reaction from González.

“That’s incredibly patronizing,” he said. “The Cubans are adults. Let them pick who they want to have for their next leader. They should have the right to decide who’s in charge.” Gesturing in Wilkerson’s direction, he said “the Cuban economy is 80% controlled by generals. Maybe because you spent a lifetime in the military, you’re fine with that.”

The subject of China came up several times — with both men purporting to be experts on the world’s most populous nation.

Wilkerson noted that in communist China, the military is also deeply involved in that country’s economy “because they have to be, just like it’s going to be anywhere you’ve got guns and bullets” — yet Washington has full diplomatic and trade relations with Beijing.

“China is my area of expertise,” said Wilkerson. “I’ve been studying that country for 30 years, and the Chinese are assembling awesome cultural, military and social power. I’d say the biggest threat to the United States in the future is not Cuba, but the People’s Republic of China. Believe me, I’m not worried about Cuba threatening us.”

González had an answer for that too.

“I reported from China for 10 years, and China has the distinction of being the only country in the world with more journalists in prison than Cuba. But China has 1.3 billion people, and Cuba has only 11 million.”

More than once, the Cuban exile reminded his audience that impoverished Haiti — one of the world’s poorest countries — has three times the Internet penetration Cuba has. González could have also said, but didn’t, that Haiti’s mobile phone penetration ex-ceeds 50%, while Cuba’s is just over 10%.

The subject of 62-year-old Maryland resident Alan Gross, who’s serving a 15-year jail sentence for distributing telecom equipment in violation of Cuban law, also came up. González defended the actions of the U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor by couching it in patriotic terms.

“His sin was to take computers down there and hand them out to Cuba’s Jewish community. This man is being held hostage right now, and Alan Gross is a living testament to this unacceptable regime,” said González.

González implored his audience not to “ignore the blood of Cubans just because you have some romantic notion of Che Guevara.”

Yet Wilkerson said the official U.S. line about aiding Cuba’s Jews is utter nonsense — especially since the Jewish community is already well-connected to the Internet.

“Alan Gross is a special situation, just as the Cuban Five are a special situation, but the facts have been obfuscated,” he said.

“He was definitely breaking Cuban law, but look, the Cubans are reciprocating. The entire process that convicted the Cuban Five of spying was utterly trumped up. The U.S. government was sending money to publish stories in Miami newspapers and go on TV in order to prejudice the jury pool.”

Wilkerson added: “This is not justice, and this could be settled in a heartbeat. All we’d have to say is ‘come home, Alan, go home, Cuban Five.’ And there would be no impact on national security whatsoever.”

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