Cuba: Origins and Prospects of the Extreme Tension.

Cuba: Origins and Prospects of the Extreme Tension.

Topic: The relationship between Cuba and the United States has undergone renewed tension. The reason for this is a complex mixture of the hijacking of Cuban aeroplanes and boats against the background of diplomatic clashes between the United States and Cuba. This atmosphere coincided in time with the war in Iraq, the final consequences of which are uncertain in their multiple dimensions. The imprisonment and trials of the dissidents resulted in the summary execution of some of the hijackers, which has given rise to widespread alarm and protest on a world scale.

Summary: The situation in Cuba has suddenly become extremely uncomfortable. On the home front, reprisals against the opposition have begun; concerning foreign affairs, the traditional situation of verbal tension with the United States has returned. The temperature has risen still further with the executions of the three hijackers of a ferry in Havana and the subsequent general criticism of the Cuban regime. It was a chain reaction. Everything started with the tactic of hounding the leaders of internal dissidence. The justification for this measure, according to the interpretation of the Cuban government, was based on the implementation of a series of activities on the part of North American diplomacy through its Section of Interests in Havana since the appointment of James Cason. In the midst of the hijacking of boats and passenger planes, things came to a head with the summary trials and executions of the three hijackers of a ferry. The international reaction has been virtually unanimous, and has resulted in the significant abandoning of support for Castro’s government on the part of intellectuals and politicians, such as in the extraordinary case of the Nobel prizewinner José Saramago. This type of break had not been seen since the Heberto Padilla incident over three decades ago. The seriousness of the situation contrasts with the relative calm of recent months. Taking into account that the responsibility for events lies in the decision of the Cuban government, it is pertinent to wonder as to its motives. A provisional assessment points to a grading of priorities. Repression and tension, according to the reckoning of the Cuban regime, are more useful than the meagre benefits of an improvement in its relationship with the United States and the promise of better treatment from Europe.
Analysis: Only a few weeks ago, José Basulto, the leader of Brothers to the Rescue, had decided to suspend the flights in search of boat refugees due to lack of funds. It must be taken into account that the shooting down of light aircrafts in 1996 was the detonator that led to the passing of the regrettable Helms-Burton Law. This provoked the confrontation of almost the whole world with the United States and also the dangerous friction of military repercussions; the freezing of marine aid operations was extremely significant. Moreover, it came within a wider context dominated by the succession or transition in Havana on the eve of an unavoidable change of leadership.

In Miami, Jorge Mas Santos, the heir to his father’s legacy in the Cuban-American Foundation, declared himself to be prepared to dialogue with any Cuban government leader except the Castro brothers. On the other side of the Florida Strait, the European Union opened a delegation (“embassy”) in Cuba. In his turn, Castro announced that he would again apply for inclusion in the Cotonou Agreement, the successor to the Lomé Convention of the ACP countries, to the satisfaction of the European Commission and Cuba’s Caribbean neighbours. In this fascinating background situation, the demo-Christian dissident Oswaldo Payá was not only authorised to travel to Strasbourg in order to receive the Sajarov European Parliament Prize, but also passed through Miami, half of Europe (including the Vatican) and Mexico, and returned to Havana unmolested. Finally, Dagoberto Rodríguez, in charge of the Section of Interests (“embassy”) of Cuba in Washington, visited Miami in order to negotiate with the exiled community his participation in a new conference on emigration, which was to be held in April in the face of considerable overbooking (it has since been suspended indefinitely). Meanwhile, in the North American Congress, the pressure to end the embargo was growing.

Taking advantage of the Iraq crisis, the political evolution of Cuba could pick up unusual speed with the danger of not attracting the attention of observers, even in a Latin American context. Everyone seemed, and justifiably so, more worried by the rise of Lula in Brazil, or the stubbornness of Chávez, than by the traditional old enemy, which during the Cold War had by its own efforts gained a place in the traditional “axis of evil”. The relative calm and apparent normality of the changes in the climate (and those on the way, in view of recent events) could only benefit the Cuban leader in the short and medium term. Even in a situation of imminent war with Iraq, and with the reasonable prediction that its development would complicate things further, a neutralised Cuba at relative calm was (and is, in the opinion of numerous observers) the ideal scenario for the Bush government. At the very least, it would need to expand the Guantánamo installations in order to receive more prisoners, if the soldiers should be taken in Iraq to make this necessary. Castro, to judge by his earlier attitude, will do nothing to oppose this, although he will not go as far as to offer unconditional collaboration on health and security matters, which he offered explicitly as a result of the 11 September events. 

In this context, which has led to the current relationship between Cuba and the United States, three lines of interests come together. One is the pressure of North American companies who seek the lifting of the embargo, as they fear they will be displaced by the European ones that have established a bridgehead in Cuba. This front has established a tacit link with the community of exiles who maintain stronger and stronger relations with their relatives in Cuba, whom they help to survive by sending funds that exceed those deriving from tourism. The sectors, previously known as hard-liners, that recommend opening up to Cuba know perfectly well that their future lies at home, unless they renounce to any influence in future political developments. Hence their cautious rapprochement to the dissidents who even recognise the legal validity of the Cuban system, as reflected in the Varela Project. On the other hand, the Cuban government had read the world situation correctly and was to distance itself as far as possible from the hornet’s nest of the Middle East and the “axis of evil”, although from time to time it takes the liberty of making a show of a verbal confrontation with Washington. By the same token, the North American government combined the policy of persecution in public (conveniently answered by its Cuban counterpart) with that of maintaining a line of communication with Havana with an essential aim; that of not complicating the situation at only 90 miles from Key West.

On the other side of the Atlantic, although they are also ready for action owing to the validity of the extra-territorial laws of the embargo, the governments and institutions of the European Union are contributing in their own way towards North American tactics. The essential European objective is to achieve a transition (although it may initially be disguised as a succession) as smoothly as possible. It finally seemed that all the actors (or almost all) were in agreement, when suddenly the crisis broke out. Under normal conditions (if the relations of Cuba with the rest of the world, especially with the United States, can be described as normal), both parties (Havana and the Washington-Miami axis) came together as allies to upset the process. One seems to provoke the other, or to let itself be provoked by the other. In the end, both parties benefit from the situation on their respective agendas (anti-imperialism in Cuba; harassment of Castro in the United States).

Worsening of a Permanent Crisis
In this new scenario, the North American officials (inspired by the hard core of the exiled community) tightened the screws by making known their contacts with the dissidents. They supported seminars and activities of clandestine journalism (which were then found to be infiltrated by the security system of the Cuban regime) and symbolically hardened their attitude by means of giving radios and computer material to the dissidents. Castro, instead of denouncing the agreement to install Sections of Interest in both countries (among other reasons because he needs a base in Washington), and consequently forcing the closure of the North American headquarters in Havana, turned his anger towards home affairs. Firstly he opted for imprisoning dissidents, imposing summary sentences on some of them, and later on, taking advantage of the culmination of a rash of hijacking of planes and boats, took the drastic step of executing three of the hijackers. For the moment he has brought upon himself the protest of the world intellectual community and of numerous governments; above all, he risks losing the favour of the European Union.

According to the perspective applied before the current crisis, Castro calculated that raising the tension at this time, even to a level unheard of in recent years, was more important than behaving benevolently, with the aim of sending a message of strength to his countrymen and abroad. At bottom, signing the Cotonou agreement is still “too much of a nuisance for so little money”, according to his actual words on answering his Caribbean neighbours when the possibility of joining the agreement was seriously proposed. In the middle of war with Iraq, raising one’s voice cannot have put too much pressure on the United States, and the anticipated criticism of the Human Rights Commission of the UN in Geneva would be repetitive and ineffective. Despite the fact that the demands of the resolution were mild, the condemnatory initiative was only approved by a small majority, in the contradictory context of the solid European support and the Latin American ambivalence translated into the opposition of some governments and the abstention of others. All this was occurring in an atmosphere of ineffectiveness of the UN itself. This negative perception was strengthened by the profile of the Commission, which is not the most ideal forum for defending human rights as it includes regimes with records in this sense as doubtful as those of Libya, Nigeria, Syria, Togo and Vietnam, not to mention China. The embargo will be maintained unchanged (which politically will be to his benefit), and according to his calculations, by autumn all will be calm again. Castro will have gained time and will have propped up the system by means of repression (thus sending a message primarily intended for the home front), in case time’s inexorable law forces succession in the form of his brother.

Washington, more occupied in systematically following the tracks of the Iraqi leaders and their possible accomplices in the east, will not wish to appear unnecessarily as the party responsible for more internal conflicts in Cuba. Its veiled reticence is mainly due to the fact that the actors destined to carry out an operation such as that set in motion in Iraq have already given sufficient evaluations in this respect. They consider, according to their reports and declarations, that Cuba does not represent a threat to the United States similar to that of the Baghdad regime. The greatest Cuban threat to the United States would be that generated by internal tension, the logical result of persecution from Washington, which would degenerate into a massive exodus, encouraged by the Cuban government itself. This is the justification for the executions used by Chancellor Pérez Roque, knowing that it coincides with the assessment of the North American government. The first confirmation of this fear is the activation of the resources of the Coast Guard and the potential militarisation (under the control of the South Commando) of a technical blockade of Cuba if a new “Mariel” incident should be unleashed. This was a nightmare for Jimmy Carter, and caused Bill Clinton problems when he was Governor of Arkansas, where detainees from the exodus arrived. It was again repeated during the 1994 boat people crisis, frozen by the migratory agreements. This relative truce was dynamited by the Helms-Burton Law, provoked in its turn by the Brothers to the Rescue incidents. The North American government is therefore content to keep Cuba as an anachronism, waiting for it to fall like an over-ripe fruit.

The seriousness of current events merits a different analysis, open to speculation, in view of the measures taken (disproportionate imprisonment, executions). Some possible causes open the way. In the first place, the attempts to hijack planes and boats, especially the successful ones, reveal possible unease within those sectors of the regime considered to be the most loyal. The fact that some military officials, a privileged minority, have opted for fleeing to Florida is indicative of the split that exists in the heart of the regime.

Secondly, the economy is clearly deteriorating, precisely in those sectors that after the end of the Cold War received special attention and benefits not available to the rest of the population, in being allowed to earn foreign currency. The world-wide uncertainty caused by the 11-S has had an impact on this sector, and has left the additional income alternatives subject to the remittances sent from the United States, with the result being the creation of greater links between the community in exile and the country itself. This has strengthened the theory of those who have put their faith in establishing links with peaceful dissidence, in the tacit support for alternatives such as the Varela Project, and finally in the decision to maintain a minimal basis for the time of the transition. The regime’s perception of the scope of movements such as the Varela Project and the sapping work of other ramifications of dissidence have turned out to be more important. On detecting this network as a considerable and novel threat, the system has resolved to take drastic steps, without considering that these may be thought not only to be disproportionate but also to violate the most elementary principles. Hence the generalised, justified reaction from the international community.

Castro seems to have crossed a frontier, previously begrudgingly respected to keep world attention focused on the unpopularity of the embargo, which, from a political perspective, only benefited the regime. On rejecting international support, due to the scandal of the executions, the regime seems to have used up a major amount of the political capital it had abroad and has chosen to strengthen the home situation. The development of the Cuban situation in the Human Rights Commission of the UN permits the advent of a note of caution as to future movements. Although the decision to send an inspection team to Havana was a majority one, the abstentions and the rupture of the Latin American front seems to have led Washington not to insist on this matter. If the abandoning of the United Nations forum in order to direct its foreign policy is confirmed (among other reasons, owing to the ambivalence of some Latin American governments in their voting), the United States may opt for other more unilateral measures so as to put Cuban development in order or provoke a more radical change.

Conclusion: The above evaluation allows us to propose a double perspective for the near future. On the one hand, the continuation of the impasse and the freezing of the situation, as far as the friction between Cuba and the United States is concerned, cannot be ruled out. Among other reasons, this is so because Castro may take care not to aggravate the situation beyond the serious decisions that have been taken. From the point of view of the United States, the best argument for not expecting drastic movements in the next few months is that the global agenda of the White House must concentrate on exploiting the success of the operation in Iraq and on attending to the economy with a view to the 2004 elections. This latter exercise will begin next autumn with the primary elections. Cuba does not appear as an added value to this strategy when the uncertainties are weighed up against the hypothetical achievements.

On the other hand, in the Cuban context, the seriousness of the incidents (especially the executions) lead one to think that events similar to those experienced in recent weeks are approaching. Up to now, Castro has known how to control the course and the consequences of events, in particular by taking advantage of the errors of the United States and exploiting the ambivalence and the expectations of the international community. Especially in recent years, Castro has expertly handled the balance between what is negative in the Cuban system and the potential for a scenario full of storm clouds and worse consequences. Backed up by the absence of any threat issuing from Havana, he has survived in a balance situation based on the new dissuasion.

The veiled threat of the White House to suspend the authorisation to send remittances to Cuba and to forbid travelling there, with the exception of strictly humanitarian trips, would be a double measure with unforeseeable consequences. The unknown factors lie not only in the interpretation to be made by most of the exiled community, but also in how the Cuban government exploits the situation. Harassment and reprisals may result in a “boomerang effect” contrary to that expected. The legal decisions to authorise the auctioning of aeroplanes hijacked towards North American territory will do nothing to strengthen the North American position, and on the contrary will again serve as an excuse for the Cuban regime. Waiting seems to be the most likely strategy for Washington over the next few months. Castro, with his drastic movements, seems to have partially destroyed this alibi. However, the final act to close this drama does not seem to be as close as some hope. It cannot be ruled out that Castro accepts a new economic reform as a last resort. This would on the one hand give him breathing space on social matters and on the other make us think that other changes of a political kind are imminent. As time goes on, this surprise seems less and less probable. This is a task that seems reserved for whoever takes over the regime, which is heading for an implacable transition.

Joaquín Roy
‘Jean Monnet’ Professor and Director of the European Union Centre at Miami University

Joaquín Roy

Written by Joaquín Roy