The Washington Diplomat / June 2002
By Larry Luxner
Between former President Carter's unprecedented mid-May visit to Cuba, and President Bush's speech to hard-line Cuban exiles in Miami barely a week later, this Caribbean island 90 miles from Florida's shores seems to be generating more than its usual share of headlines.
And that's not going to let up, now that opponents of Washington's anti-Cuba policy in Congress -- both Democrats and Republicans -- are becoming increasingly vocal about ending the 43-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Fidel Castro's communist regime.
One of the best-known, most outspoken critics of that embargo is Wayne S. Smith, who was chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979 to 1982. In a lengthy interview a few weeks ago, he praised Carter, saying the former president's visit to Cuba was nothing short of extraordinary.
"He achieved more than I would have imagined possible," Smith told The Washington Diplomat. "The fact that Castro allowed him to address the Cuban people was unprecedented. So was the fact that Granma [the Communist Party newspaper] published the entire text of his speech. By entering into a mutually respectful dialogue, Carter did more to encourage openness in Cuba than anything the U.S. government has done in all the years since his presidency."
Smith, 70, is considered a leading expert on U.S.-Cuban relations, though he is disliked by hard-liners in the Bush administration and despised by many in Miami's Cuban exile community for advocating closer relations between the two countries.
It was in Cuba, in fact, where the straight-talking Democrat from Texas began his long, distinguished career in the U.S. foreign service. In 1958, the year before Castro came to power, Smith was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Havana. He spent three years there as third secretary until 1961, when President Kennedy broke diplomatic relations with Castro, who by that time was a self-declared communist.
Smith was transferred to Brazil, and later was posted to the Soviet Union and Argentina. He eventually returned to Washington, where he became director of Cuban affairs at the State Department. In 1979, Carter -- who two years earlier had lifted travel controls as an initial step towards improving relations with Cuba -- appointed Smith to head the new U.S. Interests Section in Havana.
Smith kept that job until 1982, when he quit in disgust over the Reagan administration's hostile Cuba policy.
"The thing that brought it to a head," recalls the former diplomat, "was in December 1981, when the Cubans announced that they had halted all arms shipments to Central America. They hoped this would improve the atmosphere for negotiations not only in Central America, but also between our two countries. It took me six weeks to get a response from the State Department. The answer was 'no' to negotiations, that even though there was no evidence [that Cuba was still sending weapons to Central America], they weren't interested in negotiations with the Cubans. Shortly thereafter, the Reagan administration reimposed travel controls, they said, because of Cuba's increasing arms shipments to Central America, and because Cuba refused to address our agenda of foreign concerns. Both things were untrue.
"With that," he said, "I gave it some thought and then sent in my cable asking to be removed from the post."
Today, Smith is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank. He says he has no doubt that the U.S. embargo against Cuba will eventually be lifted -- but not as long as George W. Bush occupies the White House.
"U.S. policy is dictated by the hard-line exiles in Florida. It has almost nothing to do with what happens in Cuba," he said. "We used to tell Castro during the 80s that if he would get his troops out of Africa, stop giving arms to guerrillas in Central America and reduce his military relationship with the Soviets, then we could move ahead and improve relations in a significant way. By 1992, all those conditions had been met, so suddenly we made new conditions.
"Now they say Cuba hasn't moved as far ahead as China. That's total bullshit," he charges. "Cuba's human-rights record is better than China's. The real reason is, if Cuba had a population of 100 million people, there wouldn't have been an embargo."
Perhaps Smith's views on U.S. policy toward Cuba can best be summed up by a crudely painted wooden sign in Russian that says "Hands Off Cuba." It was given to him by a student during a 1967 demonstration in Moscow marking the death of Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Ché" Guevarra, and now occupies a prominent place on the wall of Smith's Washington office.
"The embargo gives Castro the perfect excuse to rally his people," he says. "So why are we doing him a favor by keeping it in place?"
The answer may lie in a May 20 speech in Miami, where President Bush told a wildly cheering crowd of Cuban exiles that despite Carter's visit, the United States won't consider improving relations with Cuba until Castro allows free elections and the right to free speech.
The president, appearing at a $25,000-a-plate fundraising event for his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said he would push for direct-mail service between the United States and Cuba but would not allow for any significant improvement as long as Castro remains in power and opposition parties are forbidden from participating in elections.
Smith says that policy -- which he calls "pandering to the exiles" -- is wrong-headed and politically short-sighted.
"The Bush administration is focused entirely on the elections in Florida. Their calculation is that they must do nothing that could even be interpreted as a move to improve relations with Cuba, which I think is a miscalculation. We're talking about a tiny little group of people. Polls indicate the Cuban-American community is tending to move toward the other direction."
More importantly, members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, are starting to question the wisdom of the trade embargo.
"This is now a domestic political issue. The majority of Americans think the policy has outlived its usefuleness," says Smith. "The Elian González affair began to turn American public opinion against the exiles, and that opened up the possiblity of selling foodstuffs to Cuba."
Another factor: strong opposition to the embargo from Republican lawmakers in Midwest farm states, whose constituents are "hurting for markets" and would love to be able to sell their corn, wheat, potatoes and other produce to Cuba without restrictions.
Under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, U.S. farmers can sell their agricultural products directly to Cuba, as long as the Cubans pay cash.
Since November 2001, Cuba has spent $101 million on grains, frozen chicken and other U.S. products, according to the Cuban food import agency Alimport. And that represents only 10% of potential volume.
If Cuba had access to commercial credit, says Smith, "we'd be able to sell anywhere from $800 million to $1.5 billion worth of food very quickly, and if we'd lift travel controls, tourism would increase and they'd have more money to buy American products.
"Travel is the key," he continues. "You've got all those Americans traveling down there. Hotels want to get in, telecom companies want to get in. That brings all kinds of other interests. That's not simply a breach in the wall, it's a chasm."
But none of this is likely to happen, given Bush's solemn vow to make it even harder than it already is for ordinary Americans to travel to Cuba. Smith says he knows of several people who have received letters from the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Asset Controls, ordering them to pay $7,500 for having traveled to Cuba illegally, via third countries.
"My advice is not to pay," he says of Americans who may have received similar letters after returning home from a Cuban vacation. "Ask for a hearing. They don't have enough judges, so there hasn't been any hearings."
On the other hand, Smith says President Bush cannot increase the fines against unauthorized travel to Cuba.
"It's not up to him, it's up to Congress, and Congress isn't going to," says Smith. "There aren't enough votes in Congress to do it. They're moving in the opposite direction."
Smith, who visits Cuba at least once a month, says the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 in effect codifies trade sanctions against the island, taking away from the president the power to enforce or lift it unilaterally.
Under Helms-Burton, lifting the embargo now would take a vote of Congress -- a fact that Smith says could, for the first time, actually work in favor of those who oppose it.
"Cubans understand that the world is changing, that the Cold War is over," he said. "They have the possibility now of traveling back there, and selling foods and medicines to Cuba. Those things will make it easier for their families. After 43 years, it's perfectly apparently that this stupid American policy is not going to bring Castro down. So why not try something else?"
At the same time, Smith denounces as "absurd and irresonsible" charges by some in the Bush administration that Castro is secretly developing biological warfare and transferring technology to terrorist-supporting states like Iran and Libya.
"The hardline exiles have been complaining for some time now that the administration is not taking seriously enough their accusations about Cuba being involved in biological weapons. Of course they weren't, because there wasn't any evidence. But elections are getting closer, so the administration will pander to them."
In the meantime, Smith angrily opposes plans by the Bush administration to channel millions of dollars to dissident organizations opposed to the Castro regime. He points out that leading Cuban dissidents like Elizardo Sánchez and Oswaldo Payá are "very principled" men who understand that accepting any material support from the United States would taint their reputations.
"The Castro government keeps saying they're all paid agents of the U.S. Castro knows it's not true, but it's a convenient thing to say. Then here comes the Bush administration, saying we're going to increase our support to the dissidents. That's just confirming what Castro is claiming. It's utterly stupid. They're doing the work of the Castro government and making it far more difficult for the dissidents to carry on as they are."
Along those same lines, he says the Bush administration's decision to hand out shortwave radios to Cubans on the streets of Havana so they can listen to Radio Martí -- the U.S. government-funded propaganda station -- is "just bad PR."
"Their mandate called for Radio Martí to be based in Washington, and tightly controlled by the U.S. Information Agency to assure the objectivity and accuracy of what's broadcast. Then Iliana [Ros-Lehtinen] and Lincoln [Diaz-Balart], without any hearings or votes, had it moved it down to Miami, where it has become nothing more than a ravening exile station, paid for by the American taxpayer."
Smith claims Radio Martí's listenership has plummeted from 60% of the Cuban population when it began broadcasting in 1985 to around 5% today. And TV Martí, which went on the air in 1991, is rarely seen or heard by anybody in Cuba.
That's because the Castro government jams its signal. According to Smith, broadcasting experts told the Reagan administration from the very beginning that any TV signal which must be transmitted over 100 miles can easily be jammed.
"TV Martí is a total waste of taxpayers' money, and always will be," he said, noting that it costs $20 million annually to keep TV Martí on the air.
Despite the bitterness and frustration on both sides of the issue, Smith predicts that the poor state of relations between the United States and Cuba won't last forever.
"The embargo is going to be lifted," predicts the veteran Cuba-watcher. "It'll take time, but it will come. There's a bond between Cubans and Americans that overcomes everything."