From time to time, Cuban-US relations seem to start thawing. Because Washington's hostility towards Havana is so relentless, any gesture that strays from its usual belligerent behavior, no matter how minor and unimportant, comes to the attention of most observers. We are in one of those periods. The Bush Administration, in attempts to placate its Cuban-American supporters in Florida, has been using an extremely aggressive discourse towards Cuba and naming individuals from their ranks to important government positions.
Nevertheless, its actions have been even softer than President Clinton's. George W. Bush has suspended for two consecutive six-months periods the application of Title III of the Helms-Burton legislation, thereby reaffirming his predecessor's ambiguous position towards this monument of Cuban-American intolerance and conservative extremism. Furthermore, he has also made some unprecedented gestures to Fidel Castro's government, like presenting his condolences for the damages caused by hurricane Michelle and offering humanitarian aid of sorts.
As usual, Cuba has responded in kind, thereby demonstrating that any gracious gesture will be reciprocated. Those keen observers that have followed Cuban policy towards the United States have not been surprised by Havana's constructive answer. It was a wise decision by the US Government to inform Cuba about its intentions to displace to Guantánamo Base the 'detainees' from the Afghan war, and the reassurances given to Havana that the reinforcing of the facility would not be designed to endanger Cuban security.
For those in Miami who fantasized that the Bush administration, in payment for the support given to its electoral campaign in Florida, would bring to fruition their long-time hopes of a U.S. military's invasion of Cuba and the reestablishment of U.S. hegemony --and by that same token their privileged status in the Island--, recent developments must have looked like a nightmare. To this must be added that the stream of American VIPs and regular citizens visiting Havana has increased substantially during the month of January.
If September 11 and its aftermath seemed to have frozen all initiatives to change U.S. policy on Cuba, the latest events have placed the issue again in the center of the U.S. political agenda.
That is why Cuban-American right-wing activists and media outlets demanded speedy clarifications from the White House and the State Department. Both were forthcoming in the most forceful terms.
"The President opposes any step to weaken the sanctions against the Castro regime", said the White House in a direct response to an inquiry from El Nuevo Herald, the Miami Spanish-language newspaper that acts as informal spokesman for these groups. "We will continue to maintain political, diplomatic and economic pressure on the Castro regime", added the President's Press Office. "Cuba has not taken any of the steps necessary to make improvement of relations possible", said Foggy Bottom's spokesman, Richard Boucher in his January 28 daily briefing.
Although meant to reassure the Cuban-American conservatives, these statements have been taken with some skepticism in Miami. As Pablo Alfonso wrote in his January 28 analysis in El Nuevo Herald: "The big question is still how will the Bush Administration respond in the long run, given the political and economic pressures brought to bear on it to normalize relations with the Castro regime."
These pressures have been evident for quite some time and come from every corner of the U.S. political spectrum. The second visit to Havana a couple of weeks ago by Republican Governor of Illinois, George Ryan, underlined that the political forces favorable to a normalization process have been growing even inside the GOP, where Cuban-American conservatives have usually found their main sources of support.
But the obstacles in the road to normalization remain very significant. The first and most important is most certainly the Helms-Burton law. Written largely by Jesse Helms' assistants with the active cooperation of Cuban-American right-wing lobby groups, it represents a combination of the latter's agenda for Cuba and the aspirations of those U.S. political leaders who still cling to the Ripe Fruit Syndrome that I have referred to in other columns. Under Helms-Burton there can be no normalization of relations with Cuba. That legislation must be repealed before normalization can take place.
The second obstacle is the U.S. Government's traditional reluctance to change a policy, even if its failure becomes obvious. It took Washington more than twenty years, for example, to recognize the existence of the People's Republic of China, a country that represented at the time almost one fourth of the world's population.
Compared to these obstacles, the opposition of the Cuban-American right-wing conservatives is minor, but not insignificant. It has more of a symbolic than a real nature. Cuban American conservatives' influence has been extremely overrated, comparing them with the Jewish lobby. There us no possible comparison. The Jewish lobby is more united in its support of the existence of the State of Israel and has more widespread influence in the United States as a whole than the Cuban-American conservatives can ever expect. And, something very important, the existence of the State of Israel is consistent with U.S. national interest in a way that the existence of the blockade against Cuba is not, because it affects important U.S. economic interests.
Among the many myths common to the American political elites about Cuban-Americans, besides their supposed unanimity of purpose and huge numbers, is the one that equates their political culture with mainstream political culture in the U.S. Nothing can be further from the truth. The reality is that to understand how Cuban-American right wing conservatives operate in Miami, New Jersey and other communities, the clues are in the way that the pre-1959 Cuban political system worked.
This was a system where politicians, in order survive, succeed and strive, had to follow these simple formulas:
1. Give the impression that one had access to the American Embassy or directly in Washington. After all, the problems of Cuba had to be solved in the U.S. not in Cuba.
2. Politics is a dirty business and only those ready to accept it can succeed.
3. Be completely unscrupulous in the use of political fraud and corruption.
4. Use violent methods to maintain positions.
5. Do not tolerate any kind of dissidence in the ranks.
6. Ignore any competing group and avoid compromises. If compromises have to be made, do not hesitate to break them if the need arises.
7. Treat adversaries as traitors to the cause of the country.
8. Do not hesitate to make promises that you do not have any intention to implement.People have a short memory.
9. Operate with a clientelistic approach to supporters: if you follow my every maneuverand whim, I will favor you when I am in political office.
In the end, these politicians were the ones who undermined the Cuban political system and made it possible for a man like Batista to overthrow the government in 1952 without the least possible resistance of the political classes and elites. When the Cuban revolution triumphed in 1959 there was no way the majority of the Cuban people would admit a revival of the old corrupted system.
2002 might be an important political year in the United States because the mid-term elections will include the Governorship of Florida, the state that gave the White House to George W. Bush and the Republican Party in a still contentious result. It is obvious that a Democratic victory in the Sunshine State in November will vindicate their argument that the 2000 Presidential election was 'stolen' and undermine the legitimacy of George W. Bush's leadership. It would put the Democrats in better condition to challenge the GOP in 2004.
At the same time, a Democratic victory in Florida would influence policy towards Cuba by debunking definitively the Cuban-American myth of their absolute power to decide elections. This could be the final drop of water that overflows the dam that still contains a normalization process with Cuba, something that is clearly in the wider interest of the United States, as has been argued left and right over the last couple of years.
But in order to do that, the Democrats should be wary of any tactic that would start from the premise that it is vital to win the highest possible percentage of the 280,000 mainly Republican Cuban-American votes. After all, there are 6,000,000 potential voters in Florida and many of them would probably be ready to support a candidate that, besides placing in the agenda the issues of education, social welfare and economic progress, goes against the kind of politics that Cuban-American conservative right-wingers have been imposing in Miami. Nothing exemplifies it better than the way they defied the Federal Government back in 2000 in the Elian Gonzalez case.
If a Democratic candidate for Governor would signal clearly that he or she would not stand or accept that kind of politics, and takes on the Cuban-American conservatives head on, maybe we would see how many Cuban-Americans are ready to abandon their right-wing conservative leaders, as was the case in Cuba in 1959, when the majority of the people supported Fidel Castro and 'threw the bums out'.
Dr. Carlos Alzugaray is a Full Professor at the Higher Institute of Foreign Relations of the Cuban Foreign Ministry at Havana.