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Remaking U.S.-Cuba Policy

March 29, 1998|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" and is writing a book about U.S. foreign policy

NEW YORK — 'The Cuban people are beginning to look beyond Fidel Castro. We must do the same," said Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright recently, as she unveiled a modest package of measures to ease U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

In other words, someday and possibly soon, Mother Nature will succeed where Uncle Sam has failed, and remove Castro from office.

That realization that the Castro era is slowly moving to an end is increasingly shaping perceptions in Havana, Miami and Washington. Albright's decision to lift the additional sanctions laid on after Cuba shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996 was the first sign of a new era in U.S.-Cuban relations. It won't be the last: The balance of power in U.S. politics continues to shift away from Cuban American hard-liners, and that shift will only accelerate as the end of the Castro era draws inevitably closer.

The most important development reshaping U.S. policy is unquestionably the increasingly passionate involvement of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II's visit was not a flash in the pan. The U.S. cardinals have made clear that they see the pope's visit as the first engagement of a long campaign, and they are determined to press for more change in U.S. policy. Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law, for example, is calling for a bipartisan presidential commission to recommend changes in U.S. policy and urges a rapid end to all restrictions on sales of food and medicine to the beleaguered island. He praises Castro for honoring all the commitments he made to the pope and the church and urges Washington to work with Castro to improve the lives of the people in Cuba.

One likely effect of the church's involvement will be to spread awareness in the United States that most Cuban dissidents on the island--presumably the people U.S. policy aims to support--want an immediate end to the U.S. embargo. In public and in private, Havana's Cardinal Jaime Ortega called on Washington to end the embargo long before John Paul visited the island. Elizardo Sanchez, president of the largest and most influential of Cuba's handful of opposition groups, goes even farther, urging the United States to drop its hostility to Castro as the best means of promoting the national dialogue and reconciliation that Sanchez believes will lead to reform. The more widely these views of the Cuban bishops and dissidents are known, the harder it is to make a case for current U.S. policy.

The church's involvement is accelerating another important U.S. trend: the erosion of conservative support for U.S. Cuba policy. The National Review, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times all have editorialized against the current U.S. policy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is lobbying aggressively in favor of sales of food and medicine to Cuba. Former GOP Sen. Malcolm Wallop, a man with impeccable conservative credentials, is lobbying his former colleagues to support the same measure.

The decline of broad conservative support for the embargo leaves Miami's hard-liners almost alone in supporting this policy. That community, increasingly preoccupied with election scandals and corruption allegations in Miami and its surrounding county, will also feel the effect of sustained pressure by the Catholic Church.

Indeed, the biggest effect of the papal visit to Cuba may end up being its impact on Miami. For many conservative Miami exiles, it was precisely their loyalty to Catholic Christianity that caused them to flee the militant atheism of Castro's Cuba in the 1960s.

To have the pope and the U.S. bishops, including their own Archbishop John C. Favalora, condemning resistance, calling for national reconciliation among all Cubans and denouncing the embargo as contrary to Catholic teaching comes as a bitter blow. Miami critics of the hard-line policy, meanwhile, have become far more visible. About 200 Cuban Americans from the Miami area will be in Washington next month, lobbying Congress to end the embargo on food and medicine.

The pope's visit, and the sustained support by the U.S. hierarchy, also have emboldened the business lobby. Earlier this month, more than 50 U.S. businessmen traveled to Havana; 661 corporations have formed USA Engage, which opposes U.S. unilateral sanctions, generally, and, specifically, is working to change congressional minds about the embargo.

With all this pressure building up for change, the steps Albright announced last week may seem small, but they were extremely well-planned. The resumption of direct flights and the renewed permission for Cuban Americans to send up to $1,200 a year to relatives on the island will provide a significant boost to the Cuban economy. It is the kind of step that once would have enraged Miami's leadership, but, this time, their protests had little impact. Cuban American political leaders might have been protesting, but ordinary Cuban Americans were trying to book flights and wiring money to Auntie Rosa back in Havana.

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