By Charles Lane
The New Republic, January 25, 1999
In some ways, Father Patrick Sullivan is the kind of American the Cuban government should approve of. A member of the Capuchin branch of the Franciscan order, he worked for years among the poor of Central America until his transfer to a post as a parish priest in Santa Clara, Cuba, in 1994. He is dead set against the U.S. embargo. He believes that the Catholic Church's own past mistakes contributed to the rise of Fidel Castro's revolution, which, in his view, achieved much good for the Cuban people.
Nevertheless, Castro kicked Father Sullivan out of the country shortly after Easter last year. His offenses? Distributing copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in his parish, holding democratic elections for leadership posts within his congregation, and directing foreign journalists to a hunger strike that a small human rights organization was staging in Santa Clara. In 1996, he told a reporter from The Boston Globe the mild truth that Castro's government lacked "respect for all political views."
And so, Father Sullivan was sent packing, with scant protest from his own government, and with the acquiescence of Cuba's senior Church leaders, who had been gently reminded by the authorities that a large proportion of the foreign priests on the island were there on easily canceled one-year visas. Mind you, all of this happened after Pope John Paul II's January 1998 visit to the island supposedly assured greater "space" for the Catholic Church. Whatever this additional space for the Church means, it is obviously not the same thing as additional political freedom for the Cuban people.
I thought of Father Sullivan when the news broke that the Clinton administration is considering major changes in its Cuba policy. For the second time in ten months, the administration proposed to relax the 37-year-old trade embargo against the island. The plan includes the restoration of direct postal service between the United States and Cuba; an expansion of air transportation between the two countries; millions of dollars more in remittances from United States citizens to Cubans; and permission for U.S. firms to sell food and fertilizer there. President Clinton even wants to see the Cuban national baseball team play the American League's Baltimore Orioles.
To be sure, this represents a compromise between the still mostly hard-line Cuban-American community, which favors the embargo, and an increasingly restless U.S. business and foreign policy elite, which is frustrated with what a recent Council on Foreign Relations report called the "logjam" over U.S. policy on Cuba. But the overall tendency of American policy is clear. Both the administration and the Congress are increasingly interested in dropping the embargo in favor of "engagement," although the full realization of this may have to wait until after the 2000 elections, when a new president would feel politically liberated to act.
The theory is that, the more contact Cubans have with Americans, the more likely Cuba will prosper and, eventually, evolve into a democracy. The new Clinton proposal goes to great lengths to target cash transfers; money can go only to charities that either the Church or other independent organizations control. The U.S. government would also channel food and fertilizer sales to the few independent farmers and privately owned restaurants that Castro has permitted. All proceeds from the baseball games would go to nongovernmental charities. Thus does the administration seek to support the people and bypass any contact with the government of Fidel Castro.
As of this writing, Cuban officials had responded coolly to the idea, though we still haven't heard what Castro thinks of a policy that announces itself as an effort to gradually undermine his rule. My guess is that the aging comandante won't say yes or no. He'll haggle. Despite U.S. intentions to sidestep Cuba's government, the plan would require the cooperation of Cuban postal and civil aviation authorities. This, presumably, would entail bilateral negotiations, in which Castro would attempt to wring some sort of fee out of the United States. He'll also try to figure out how his government can tap into the flow of remittances. Who knows? Maybe Cuba's resourceful state security service will even start setting up its own "private" restaurants to act as fronts for the importation of U.S. goods.
I'm skeptical for a reason. Father Sullivan's experience reminds us that the Castro government still jealously guards the island's political space, even against innocuous expressions of dissent. Either the United States will stick to its plan to keep Castro from benefiting, in which case he'll deny the cooperation necessary for the U.S. plan, or the United States will bend, in which case U.S. resources will end up helping the Castro regime sustain itself. It is the same dilemma the United States has faced in its effort to "engage" North Korea through food and fuel aid and, indeed, in its much older policy of courting Communist China.
Senator John Warner of Virginia, a Republican embargo-dropper, expressed disappointment that Clinton didn't go even further. "Whatever his future may be," Senator Warner said, "I think he would have liked to open up Cuba as Nixon opened up China." This remark demonstrates the basic flaw of much "engagement" rhetoric. Nixon reestablished diplomatic relations, but he didn't "open up" the country in the sense of democratizing it. We're still waiting for the last quarter-century's worth of people-to-people contact to achieve that.
Recent administration feelers to other anti-American stalwarts suggest a similar conclusion. In Libya, a loosening of American conditions for the trial of two government agents in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing has produced only more hemming and hawing by Muammar Qaddafi. In Syria, various financial and political blandishments scarcely altered Hafez al-Assad's position on Middle East peace. In Iran, Secretary of State Albright's olive branch toward the new, moderate president has basically been spurned.
In each of these cases, the missing element for better relations is not American flexibility. It is internal political change on the other side. This is a fundamental lesson of the cold war; there will be no meaningful thaw with Cuba, and certainly no democratic opening there, until a Cuban Gorbachev emerges. Meanwhile, perhaps we should make a standing offer to Fidel Castro: We'll lift the embargo, provide massive aid to rebuild the island, and give back the U.S. base at Guantanamo if he'll simply hold a free, multiparty, internationally monitored national election, just like the ones they have in every other Latin American country. Let him turn that offer down and then try to explain to his people, and the world, why he did.
(Copyright 1998, The New Republic)