A New Stance Toward Havana
"The issue is not how to change US policy toward Cuba. The issue is how to change the Cuban regime," Havana-born US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez said not once, not twice, but throughout a recent speech titled "Cuba After Fidel." The secretary's disciplined effort to stay "on message" was likely a response to the emerging pressure on Washington to abandon its policy of perpetual hostility and assume a new approach toward Havana--given new political realities in both capitals.
In Washington and Havana, two striking events may have laid the groundwork for real political drama this year: After almost fifty years of supreme rule, a gravely ill Fidel Castro transferred "provisional" power to his brother Raul last July, and after twelve years of being out of power, the Democratic Party resumed control of Congress last November.
In Cuba, eight months of stability and business-as-usual have passed since the announcement of Castro's illness, reported to be diverticulitis. Castro's health has improved, and he is slowly re-entering public life, but he appears not to have resumed his previous around-the-clock work schedule, nor his notorious micromanagement of major and minor affairs of state. Yet the regime has not collapsed--as so many officials, analysts and exiles wishfully believed it would--exposing the utter failure of the US policy of regime change. In Washington, Democrats who want a more enlightened posture toward Havana have assumed control of key Congressional committees. Precisely because it is now an open secret that Washington's half-century don't talk/don't trade/don't travel policy toward Cuba has gone nowhere, the new US Congress has the opportunity to lay the foundation for an overhaul of America's Cuba policy that a centrist of either party could pursue once in the White House in 2009.
If the Administration were not so embroiled in Iraq, Castro's dire illness might have provoked a collective cry of "Ding-dong, the witch is dead," but the unanticipated shifting of the guard in Cuba and subsequent stability there has caught Washington unawares. With the exception of Secretary Gutierrez's muscular speech, the Administration's silence on the issue has been deafening, and telling. Caleb McCarry, the Administration's "transition coordinator" for Cuba, has been keeping a notably low profile. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon has spent his time recently with a number of senior Administration officials and the President himself trying to recover lost ground with the countries in Latin America that really count, such as Brazil and Mexico.
To be sure, a few lonely voices still carry the torch: Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte testified in his last hearing as intelligence czar in January that despite official Cuba's efforts at an orderly transfer of power, the United States does not want to see a "soft landing" in Cuba. And Cuban-American members of Congress in both parties--but especially House Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Lincoln Díaz-Balart and his brother Mario Díaz-Balart--remain unreconstructed but increasingly isolated defenders of overthrowing the Cuban regime. Together with some White House allies, they are willing to risk, and perhaps even welcome, the consequences of a crash landing, on the gamble that the violence and chaos that would ensue would create a post-Castro, post-socialist, post-revolutionary vacuum into which they and their increasingly divided constituents could step.
Beyond these Cuban-American Congressional holdouts, both parties in Washington are experiencing regime-change fatigue. It's an open secret in Washington, one that failure in Iraq and stability in Cuba have helped spread, that if taken today a secret vote in Congress would reveal an overwhelmingly bipartisan majority in favor of ending economic sanctions against Cuba and allowing all Americans to travel there freely. This is indicated even by votes taken between 1998 and 2001 in the Republican-controlled Congress. Agricultural, travel and energy lobbies; Cuban-American family associations; and cultural, religious and humanitarian groups all currently support an opening with Cuba. Their views are fully representative; some 52 percent of the American public, according to opinion polls, favor lifting the trade embargo against Cuba and pursuing more normal relations.
But despite a broad constituency for a new Cuba policy, despite the emergence from within the Cuban-American community of new voices calling for change (joined by some prominent old ones) and despite the growing importance of non-Cuban Latino voting blocs around the country, the Democratic and Republican political operators will be loath to risk the 6-8 percent margin Cuban-American voters in Florida could deliver to presidential candidates in 2008. After all, precisely because of its internal stability and zealous commitment to its own national security, Cuba is now a strategically insignificant issue for American foreign policy. It is hard to make the case to any national politician that it is worth taking a risk to change Cuba policy when the status quo, however ineffectual, causes little harm and is thus low stakes by comparison with the real biggies--whether immigration, Iraq or Iran.
Nevertheless, the time to make that case is now.