Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Cuba problem

Posted on Sun, Dec. 07, 2008

The Cuba problem

By Michael Deibert

The Miami Herald

The Cuba Wars: Fidel Castro, the United States and the Next Revolution.

Daniel P. Erikson. Bloomsbury. 333 pages. $28.


(Read the original article here)

As a chronicle of 50 years of failed foreign policy, Daniel P. Erikson's new book should be studied by officials of the incoming Obama administration lest they repeat the folly of past U.S. governments.

The story of how the authoritarian ruler of a Caribbean island of 11 million people bested 10 U.S. presidents and managed to survive all attempts to oust him serves as an object lesson of how wishful thinking is no substitute for a policy based on facts.

For too long, Erikson argues, a coherent strategy in dealing with Cuba has been subsumed in favor of an ill-conceived ''biological solution'' (awaiting the inevitable demise of Fidel Castro) and a well-organized though numerically small bloc of Cuban-American political operators and their supporters in the U.S. Congress.

''While the death of Fidel will remain an extraordinarily significant political moment when it finally occurs, its impact will necessarily be diluted by the simple fact that he is no longer Cuba's president,'' writes Erikson, referring to Castro's February 2008 resignation.

Despite ample warnings of Castro's failing health, such as a well-publicized fainting spell in 2001, the best response U.S. politicians could muster in recent years was to further curtail trade and the travel of American citizens going to Cuba -- the sort of move the Cuban government long practiced on its own people -- and providing shelter to the likes of Luis Posada Carriles, an anti-Castro militant wanted in Venezuela for his alleged involvement in a 1976 airplane bombing that killed 73 people.

Erikson, who serves as senior associate for U.S. policy and director of Caribbean programs for the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., argues that such a response was hardly robust enough against a surprisingly resilient adversary.

Erikson does a good job of outlining the Cuban government's ability to manipulate international upheaval to its benefit, such as timing a 2003 crackdown on internal dissent, which saw 75 Cubans sentenced to a total of 1,400 years in prison, so that most of the world's attention was occupied with the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

If there is any point that Erikson's book truly brings home, though, it is that the intellectual bankruptcy of U.S. policy toward Cuba cuts across the political spectrum. The Communist regime's supporters in Congress reveal themselves to be every bit as close-minded as some of its most strident critics, and neither side is willing to commit to substantive discussions with the other. Anti-Castro Lincoln Diaz-Balart, the South Florida congressman,speaks knowingly of the situation in Cuba and advocates unyielding policies though he has not lived on the island for decades. But Castro's defenders, such as California congresswoman Maxine Waters, turn absurdly mawkish when they consider the demise of the country's one-party, totalitarian state.

''I like him and consider him a friend,'' Waters says of Castro, admitting that she is ''not psychologically prepared'' to consider the possibility of the Cuban leader shuffling off this mortal coil.

The Cuba Wars has its weaknesses. James Cason, the Bush administration's feisty chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2002 until 2005, holds forth over many pages, but the insight we get about Cuba's ruling clutch of aging autocrats comes mostly from second-hand allegories and their public statements, which more often than not slide into mothballed revolutionary histrionics. There is also some regrettable sloppiness on detail: The patois dialect spoken in Jamaica is referred to as ''Creole,'' and a famous image by the photographer Robert Capa of a Loyalist fighter falling in combat during the Spanish Civil War is erroneously referred to as depicting ``a journalist.''

Still, The Cuba Wars provides a valuable glimpse inside the U.S. decision-making process with regards to one of its oldest and seemingly most intractable international disputes. When Erikson writes that his book was composed with the hope of making policymakers take ''a hard look at the reality as it is, not as we would like it to be,'' one can only hope that the incoming administration takes those as words to live by, not only for Cuba but also for foreign-policy pursuits far beyond its palm-fringed shores.

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.

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