Diplomatic Pouch / November 2012
By Larry Luxner
Jorge Alberto Bolaños Suarez, Cuba’s top diplomat in the United States, has left his post after four years and nine months on the job, during which time bilateral relations hardly budged, despite tentative economic reforms back home. He’s being replaced by José R. Cabañas Rodríguez, an official at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs about whom little is known.
Bolaños, 75, was fêted at an Oct. 10 farewell reception on Capitol Hill. The party was attended by 30 or so pro-Cuba activists, academics and supporters of the revolution who lavished praise on the departing chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
The cocktail party — coming amidst persistent rumors of Fidel Castro’s impending demise — was co-sponsored by three Washington-based think tanks opposed to current U.S. policy on Cuba: the Center for International Policy (CIP), Latin America Working Group (LAWG) and Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA).
No U.S. officials or foreign diplomats were invited to the reception for Bolaños, who did little to improve the dismal state of the U.S.-Cuba relationship and who refused most media requests for interviews (unlike his predecessor, Dagoberto Rodríguez, who often spoke to The Washington Diplomat during his 2001-07 posting here).
Bolaños did talk to Matthew Lee of the Associated Press shortly after arriving for his Washington posting in 2008, telling the AP that Raul Castro’s invitation for dialogue did not extend to then-President George W. Bush, who maintained stringent travel restrictions to the island, but was rather intended for the new Obama administration.
“That is the time when Cuba would be ready to dialogue on the basis of mutual respect, without the arrogance that has always colored the U.S. position,” Bolaños said in Spanish. “I’m not concerned what the current State Department says because we are waiting for what the next one has to say about Cuba.”
Although the next administration did ease U.S. travel to the island, it’s taken a wait-and-see approach toward the economic opening spearheaded by Raul Castro, who officially took over the presidency from his brother Fidel in 2008. Since then, Cubans have been able to open small private businesses, buy and sell property, and, most recently, obtain exit visas, once practically impossible to get, to travel abroad.
Despite the birth of a nascent private sector on the communist island, the U.S. trade embargo, now more than 50 years old, remains firmly in place.
Moreover, U.S. officials have made it clear that there will be no improvement in bilateral relations until the release of Alan Gross, the Maryland man who was arrested in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in jail for subversion. Gross, a USAID subcontractor who claimed he was only bringing Internet access to the island’s tiny Jewish community, has lost 105 pounds in prison and is said to be suffering from a variety of ailments.
Neither Bolaños nor any of the other speakers at the Capitol Hill reception mentioned Gross. But the lack of movement in U.S.-Cuba relations, now at their worst level in years, didn’t stop the accolades from pouring in for Bolaños.
“Jorge Bolaños is one of Cuba’s most distinguished diplomats,” said the CIP’s Wayne Smith, who used to head the U.S. Interests Section in Havana more than 30 years ago. “We all thought when he was assigned here that it was a tremendous sign, shortly after President Obama’s inauguration, that there would be a change in U.S. policy. But we have not seen the dramatic change we hoped for.”
Bolaños himself acknowledged that he wasn’t very effective in Washington.
“I came here with goodwill. I always say that ambassadors are for building relations, not destroying them,” the elderly diplomat told his admirers (some would say apologists). “I think the United States and Cuba — only 90 miles apart — have many common interests. The history of U.S.-Cuba relations is full of chapters, some good and some not so good. We think it is time for both peoples to understand each other. I cannot be happy if this is delayed.”
Bolaños added: “Maybe I didn’t accomplish my mission, but I made wonderful friends.”
One of those friends is LAWG’s Mavis Anderson.
“The ambassador was here at a time which many people felt could have been seminal in U.S.-Cuba relations. He was here at a time of expectations,” Anderson told the Pouch. “President Obama opened up family travel, which was very important, as well as educational, religious and people-to-people travel. But that wasn’t as much as we had hoped. Now we will need to defend that so we go forward, not backward.”
Another admirer of Bolaños is James Early, director of cultural heritage policy at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage.
“It’s an honor to have Cuba’s main diplomat in the United States here in this room, representing the people of Cuba,” he said. “Whatever one may think about that government, it is a government brought to power by its people. The American people are beginning to recognize that we do not have the right to tell the Cuban people what kind of life they want to lead.”
Of course, Cubans have not had much of a say in how to lead their government for decades — and whether Cuba’s economic opening will be followed by a political one remains to be seen.
Not much is known about José Cabañas, the man who’s replacing Bolaños effective Nov. 1 — other than that he’s about 50 years old, that he graduated from Havana’s Instituto Superior de Relaciones Internacionales (ISRI), and that he was Cuba’s ambassador to Austria.
In 1984, Cabañas wrote a book titled “Radio Martí: Una nueva agresión,” about the U.S. government’s persistent attempts to turn average Cubans against the Castro regime through propaganda radio broadcasts from Miami.
Washington attorney Robert Muse, who specializes in Cuba-related issues, met Cabañas in 1998. At that time, he was Bolaños’s deputy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Under difficult conditions, he [Bolaños] left U.S.-Cuba relations better than he found them in areas like supporting environmental cooperation and scientific exchanges,” said Muse. “The relations between our two governments may be strained, but NGOs have never been stronger, and people-to-people travel has helped in that way, too.”
The CIP’s Smith, who in 1981 resigned his Havana diplomatic posting to protest the Reagan administration’s policies on Cuba, said a Nov. 6 victory by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney will send U.S.-Cuba relations back to the dark ages.
In fact, the pro-embargo Romney has already announced that if elected, he’ll rescind Obama’s people-to-people travel regulations and make it more difficult even for Cuban-Americans to visit the island.
“If Mr. Romney wins, I don’t know what we’ll do,” said Smith. “Fortunately, Mr. Bolaños doesn’t have to worry about that.”