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U.S. Policy Is Consistent--but Wrong

April 22, 2001|William M. LeoGrande | William M. LeoGrande is professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University and author of "Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992."

WASHINGTON — The Bay of Pigs invasion 40 years ago this month was, as historian Theodore Draper famously observed, "a perfect failure." Washington's attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro by sending 1,400 Cuban expatriates ashore to spark a popular insurrection proved not only ineffective; it was also premised on a profound misunderstanding of Cuba by U.S. policymakers that persists to this day.

The invasion, and later CIA campaigns of sabotage and attempted assassination, grew out of Washington's conviction that Castro's government was so antithetical to U.S. interests that coexistence was impossible: He had to be overthrown. These policies failed because Washington did not comprehend how successfully Castro can rally nationalist sentiment behind his revolution in any confrontation with the United States.

The world has changed dramatically since 1961, but U.S. policy toward Cuba remains remarkably unaltered. Washington still cannot conceive of coexisting with Castro and is still trying to overthrow him, albeit by means other than military force. It is still deaf to the ways in which its actions enable Castro to appeal to Cuban nationalism. Current U.S. policy employs a combination of severe economic sanctions, designed to weaken the Castro regime, and "people-to-people" contacts, intended to foster the development of civil society.

People-to-people contacts--through academic and cultural exchanges, improved air and telecommunications links--are laudable in principle. They serve the immediate interests of ordinary citizens on both sides of the Florida Straits. But the policy has a double edge. From the outset, Washington has conceived of these contacts as a way to subvert the Cuban government. That's how the policy, dubbed "Track II," was promoted when first introduced in the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act. Its author, Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), argued that Eastern European Communist regimes "ultimately fell from the power of ideas." By analogy, Castro would, too.

Washington has also taken a more direct hand. In addition to academic and cultural contacts, the 1992 law authorizes U.S. government aid to "individuals and organizations to promote nonviolent democratic change in Cuba." Former President Bill Clinton approved the first such program in 1995. The following year, the Helms-Burton law expanded the "democracy-building" mandate of this overtly political program, authorizing assistance to democratic and human-rights groups in Cuba and to former political prisoners and their families. About $10 million has been spent since 1996, and another $5 million allocated in the next budget cycle. A new bill just introduced by Cuban American Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) would channel this political aid exclusively to "opposition groups" and former political prisoners.

The idea of fomenting and supporting opposition to regimes that Washington dislikes is by no means new. Overtly and covertly, the United States has funded newspapers, trade unions, political parties and nongovernmental organizations in scores of countries with the aim of destabilizing their governments. The strategy has an impressive record of success: It disposed of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran, Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Salvador Allende in Chile (where the policy was also called "Track II"), the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia.

But exploiting whatever political liberty exists in another country to foment its subversion inevitably puts real democrats at risk. Castro managed to survive Washington's enmity in the 1960s in part because he quickly and ruthlessly eliminated all political opposition. Even today, the amount of political space open to opponents of his regime, slim as it may be, fluctuates with the tenor of U.S.-Cuban relations.

Advocates of political aid reply that Cuba's dissidents themselves are the best judges of whether receiving outside assistance is worth the added repression they endure. No one is forced to take U.S. aid, they point out, and some, like human-rights activist Elizardo Sanchez, consistently refuse. The problem, however, is that a chill in the political climate affects everyone. When Castro's regime cracks down, everyone suffers, not just those who have consciously decided to risk antagonizing state security by accepting U.S. aid. Every dissident is tarred with the brush of disloyalty and subjected to harsh new laws, like the one passed in 1999 that makes "collaboration" with the United States punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

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