U.S. Cuba Policy: Will We Get It Right This Time?
By Alberto Luzárraga
The US/Cuba policy is a classical example of a traditional United States
foreign policy conundrum: its interests as a world power and the
American people’s desire for fairness. In Cuba’s case it is complicated
by the U.S. lack of continuous high level interest, underestimation of
the challenge, and the neglect to formulate a long range policy.
Most Americans are not aware of critical inflection points in the
relationship. It began with admiral de Grasse, who prior to sailing for
Yorktown stopped in Havana in order to obtain funds with which to pay
his troops. He had been previously rebuffed in Haiti, then a French
colony, but succeeded in Havana, whose citizens had memories of
centuries of conflict with England. Later, during the American
Revolution, Spanish troops and Cuban militia attacked through the south,
took Pensacola and Mobile and created a much needed diversion. Many
other critical inflexion points followed. The paths of Cuba and the
United States seem to be intertwined at critical points in their history
starting from their inception as new nations simply because Cuba is a
strategic outpost and this fact emerges at critical moments.
The first inflection point that followed the U.S. birth as a nation was
the Monroe doctrine. It established that Cuba’s geographic position was
vitally important to U.S. interests and stemmed from the desire to
possess the island (originally a Jeffersonian objective) or at least
prevent a foreign power domination of Cuba. The doctrine marked the
debut of the United States as a power that saw fit to define its
regional area of interest.
The doctrine is the only long range policy ever formulated towards Cuba.
It was a classic national interest policy that evolved into a watch and
wait policy wherein Spain was seen as a weak power that would be
preferable to a strong one. Thus, throughout the Cuban wars of
independence, the U.S. declined to grant the Cuban patriots belligerent
power recognition. Essentially the United States was afraid that a weak
Cuban state would emerge and that a European power would covet it.
The Congressional Joint Resolution authorizing U.S. intervention and
setting off the war with Spain was the second inflection point. It
marked the emergence of the U.S as a world power that dispatched an old
European power in a matter of weeks.
The final text of the resolution was resisted by the then administration
in that it expressly established the need for Cuba’s independence.
Fairness triumphed, and it passed anyway. Finally decades of conflicting
and vacillating policy on the subject were swept aside. The Platt
Amendment, attached to the Cuban Constitution at the U.S. request, was
an expression of a national interests motivated by strategic concerns.
The United States was embarking on ‘The Panama Canal’ endeavor and it
wanted a stable and peaceful Cuba, receptive to U.S. investment and
securely linked to it. Consequent with the thinking of the time, Cuba
could not be to allowed fall prey to another power that could block the
maritime routes to the canal. The Cuban naval bases were part of this
defensive position. The provisions of the amendment that limited Cuba’s
foreign indebtedness were part of the same thought as many European
‘gunboat’ interventions started in order to collect debts. The clause
that gave the U.S. the right to intervene in order to quell internal
unrest affirmed the protectorate. It was the third inflection point, the
debut of the U.S. as a nation with protectorates.
The history of the amendment is too long to detail. Suffice to say that
it created political problems for both countries, and retarded Cuba’s
political development although it probably stimulated economic
development. Eventually the abrogation of the amendment took place in
1934. The United States was never comfortable in its role of self
appointed guardian, and after having emerged as a world power following
World War I, its regional area o influence was unchallenged. The Platt
amendment was unnecessary dead weight.
Following the abrogation, mutual relations were conducted on a more
traditional course wherein commercial considerations and guarantees for
investors were the main issue. Throughout this period Cuba’s attitude
presented a duality: at the personal and nation to nation level, a
genuine friendship and identification with many American values; from
the political class a mixture of admiration and residual resentment for
Into this situation the Castro phenomenon erupted. In an audacious move,
Castro chose sides in the cold war and created a proximate threat to the
United States. The foreign power incursion feared by the U.S. finally
came to fruition. The fourth inflection point was unexpected and
different. It came through ‘internationalist’ socialism coupled to
Castro’s continental aspirations. This was a totally new formulation
never before experienced by American policy in this hemisphere
particularly when the instrument was a small and formerly client state.
A ‘solution’ inspired on the Guatemala template was devised showing that
not much was understood and that underestimation was alive and well.
The Bay of Pigs failure marked the fifth inflexion point. It was the
first widely publicized defeat of American policy in Latin America and
it produced two children. The ‘Alliance for Progress’ and the October
missile crisis. The Alliance never produced much progress nor did it
stop Castro. It was another example of the policy of ‘reacting’ to the
circumstances without trying to understand the issue at hand. Or worse
yet, misdiagnosing the causes of the Castro ascent to power, mistaking
it for a social revolution of the masses and not a political revolution
that was then redirected to suit the ambitions of a new class.
The October 1962 missile crisis was the sixth and most dangerous
inflection point. For the first time in U.S. history a very grave
proximate threat to national security took place. It was ‘unthinkable’
that Castro would encourage Khrushchev and that the Russians would take
up the offer. The unwinding of the crisis resulted in U.S. guarantees to
the Soviet Union that Castro would be left alone and the Monroe doctrine
was placed in suspended animation. It was the seventh inflection point.
Several decades of Castro military intrusion in the hemisphere and the
world followed, with the bill footed by the Soviet Union. Finally, the
cold war ended and the thought was that Castro, no longer supported by
the Soviet Union, would regress to a ‘nuisance’ category.
And then the psychological trip wire that appears to exist at the policy
level of the United States, took over: ‘Cuba is an errant ex ward come
to age and given its small size not a serious threat.’
The realities of asymmetrical warfare should have rendered these
conclusions obsolete but nonetheless they persist. Castro has played
this vulnerability of American thought to the hilt, playing the ‘victim’
role while wining and dining more US legislators (and one former
president) than anyone in recorded history. In the meantime he pursued
another dangerous hemispheric agenda. This time it was purely homegrown.
Its two more obvious products are Chávez and Evo Morales both leaders of
energy rich countries. Throughout this period Castro managed to
infiltrate the higher levels of U.S. intelligence (witness the Ana Belén
Montes case) and to influence U.S. policy by masking his intentions
through the use of the ‘enemy’s’ intelligence assets. Military
assessments of Cuba’s capabilities and intentions were heavily
influenced by Ms. Montes who was the resident ‘expert’ on Cuban matters.
Not a bad result for a ‘nuisance.’
II- Present Situation.
Embarrassing facts tend to be set aside. This truism, coupled to the
downsizing of historical memory, serves well the effort of some business
interests that demand a purely commercial approach in the U.S. policy
towards Cuba. Their argument in essence is: Cuba is not capable of
harming the United States so why don’t we conduct business as usual?
Presumably this would also include public credit. This idea has been
persistently pushed on congress through their lobbyists. So far the
executive branch, with information in good part furnished by the Cuban
American community and the Cuban American legislators, has held to a
policy that basically preserves the status quo in spite of substantial
pressure to change.
For most of Castro’s 46 years the policy has been reactive, and at times
sleepy or electoral. (Keep the Cuban Americans happy and kick it forward
for the next administration). The American public has no appreciation of
the events in the hemisphere and tends to become aware only when crisis
impends. Whatever debate exists is mainly confined to commercial and
political interests vs. the Cuban American community. Academia is also
involved and mostly on the accommodation with Castro side.
A concept of where Cuba, Cubans, Americans and Cuban Americans fit in
the U.S. body politic and Latin American policy is as absent as it is
needed. Enough has happened in the last four decades: Bay of Pigs,
October Missile Crisis, Cuban Latin American intervention and guerrilla
operations in among others Bolivia, Venezuela, Argentina, Grenada, and
Central America. Add to this an expeditionary force sent to Angola,
guerrillas sent to other African countries, intervention the Middle East
conflict, support of terrorism and drug traffic, shooting down of
American civilian aircraft. The list is interminable. And now back to
square one with Chávez et al.
This is not the work of a single man, it is the work of a team dedicated
to stir up trouble and push an agenda. A team that will attempt to cling
to power and influence after Castro exits. The issue will not go away
and needs to be answered because Castro’s days are numbered, (he is not
a healthy man.)
In this void there are in the United States two main currents of
thinking that vie for dominance.
1- Produce permanent and true democratic change in Cuba.
2- Make an accommodation with the status quo. The accommodation
advocates motivations come in four brands:
i) The American socialists (albeit operating under other labels) want an
accommodation because they like the system including the total control
of the education process. The fact that Castro’s Cuba is drifting
towards fascism is irrelevant for this group.
ii) The ‘make a buck now crowd’ who cares little about anything else and
lack strategic thought. Usually they will argue that trade and business
will inevitably bring political change. True, but the problem is that
the thinking stops there. What kind of change, under what circumstances,
and with what consequences is the point. Cubans don’t need to jump from
the frying pan of Stalinist socialism to the fire of a post socialist
quasi fascism run by an enriched new class of ex bureaucrats. Further,
consequences in the hemisphere are totally absent from their thinking.
iii) The immigration worriers. The fear is that an impoverished Cuban
population will take to the Florida straits without a strong regime that
will restrain them. This is a rather narrow and cynical argument that
has some short term validity but is a very poor long term ‘solution.’
Tyrannical regimes produce poverty. The strong regime ‘solution’ would
perpetuate the problem, not solve it. A prosperous Cuba will not seek
emigration. It did not happen before Castro.
iv) The Chinese model advocates. This is really a more sophisticated
version of the ‘make a buck’ now concept. It is the same idea with some
‘intellectual’ trimmings. The Cuban American community assumes the role
of the overseas Chinese in investing in a post Castro Cuba that
continues to be ruled by the same group of top castroites who supposedly
will ‘evolve’ towards democracy. Not much effort is required to
understand that this Darwinian model will produce a new version of a
Caribbean dictatorship parceling out a country to its friends and
partners. It presupposes benign and beneficial ’evolution’ without
providing a single cogent argument of why people accustomed to do what
they want with no moral or rule of law habits will radically change for
the better and not enrich themselves. Further, comparing Cuba and the
Cuban American community to China ignores several obvious facts. A
millenary culture in China that sustains the belief of many Chinese that
the Middle Kingdom is the Mecca of civilization and should again rule
the world. A nationalism that harkens back to that idea. 1,200 million
people that must be fed. A continuous history of absolute rulers.
Vicious internal strife when anything other than absolute power was
tried. 11,000 kilometers distance between Washington and Beijing. No
history of a close relationship with this country. Not a part of the
American continent and its libertarian aspirations. And finally, this
model is still an unfinished book politically. Nobody knows for sure
whether Chinese nationalism will turn virulent or not. It would seem
that to the proponents of this ‘solution’ Cubans are not capable of
restoring their western traditions and culture. They must adopt a model
that is alien and distant, work for small wages, have limited liberties
and be resigned to their lot. And to boot, meekly accept their sad fate
90 miles from the greatest economy and democracy in the world. This
moronic and fatalistic idea requires a moronic and fatalistic people to
accept it. Cuba and the Cubans are not that, and neither is the United
The advocates of a permanent and true democratic change (led by vast
majority of the Cuban American community) reject an accommodation with
the Cuban status quo for two essentials reasons:
i) Common sense dictates a very simple conclusion. The architects of
disaster cannot produce a viable democracy or indeed a safe and
prosperous country that will be a good neighbor
ii) Justice. After so many missteps, the Cuban people deserve freedom
and not a ‘utilitarian’ solution which is neither ‘utilitarian’ nor a
In the heated climate of political discourse logic makes an exit. The
adversaries of the libertarian approach try to paint most Cuban
Americans as rabid advocates of ‘revanche’ or alternatively as an out of
touch remnant of a community wherein the younger generation has a
different point of view. The fact is that there exists a remarkable
continuity of sentiment that spans across generations, nurtured by the
fact that the exile community is consistently replenished by new
These are not the white Russians living in Paris that eventually died
out. It is a veritable living political body wherein the new arrivals,
having in many cases suffered more, are more anti-Castro in their
convictions. Many are young and they are heard by the
Cuban American youth.
Another undeniable fact is that the exile community, generously accepted
in the U.S. under exceptional terms, has responded in kind creating
wealth and prosperity for themselves and their adopted country. It has
attained very high levels of education and achievement in business and
academia as well as politics having adapted in record time to the system
and sent four congressmen, one senator and two cabinet secretaries to
Washington, in addition to having contributed a very large number of
representatives to local government (another radical difference with
China). That Cuban Americans are industrious, educated and adept at
political activity is obvious. They need not reclaim properties in Cuba
nor engage in dirty business with an immoral new class to advance their
fortunes. They need not rely on so called experts to tell them what they
are supposed to think. They can and do think quite well by themselves.
It is a prosperous community that realizes full well how difficult it
will be to turn Cuba around and that practical ideas and not more
ideology are the solution. Hard facts belie the ‘revanche’ smear of a
vindictive exile community with fixated ideas that those with non
libertarian or semi socialist agendas seek unsuccessfully to
disseminate. Cubans have thought things through and they know what they
do not want, and that is, more decades of socialism or a Caribbean
version of fascism. The American left doesn’t like this train of thought
and the American ‘make a buck now crowd’ doesn’t care. Well, we care and
have refused for 46 years to sing in the choir of prefabricated thought
for a very simple reason: We have seen the results.
III. Need to improve the present policy and plan for the future.
The present policy includes a very good component. It clearly states
that Castro is a tyrant, must go, and that Cubans deserve full liberty
and not a ‘proforma’ democracy. It fits with the President’s belief that
true democracies don’t create wars but prosperity and that the best
neighbors are those with solid democratic institutions.
However, it lacks focus and follow up. Congressmen and Senators from
both parties continue to visit Cuba and upon return continue to lobby
for their political or commercial interests. From time to time they
propose disastrous legislation that passes both chambers and eventually
gets shot down in conference or through parliamentary devices following
veto threats. Recently, there was a change, and a number of proposals
were voted down in the House thanks to the hard work of Cuban American
legislators and to the success in disseminating information by dedicated
persons in the Cuban American community. But the fact that this must be
done shows the level of misinformation that is allowed to pass without
official rebuttal, or for that matter rebuttal by a group with
impeccable credentials and professional depth.
In a democracy, legislators have the right to push forward their views
but it is stunning that matters such as the Ana Belen Montes case and
Castro’s involvement in strategically important countries such as
Bolivia and Venezuela (with huge energy reserves) and money laundering
are totally out of the public political discourse. Recently we have the
money laundering scheme of many billions in which Cuba was the main
culprit and that resulted in $100 million dollar fine by the Fed to a
Swiss Bank. The issue reinforced the copious evidence of drug
trafficking at Cuba’s highest echelons. Indeed when one sees important
Senators with intimate knowledge of intelligence matters vote
affirmatively on bills that would be a boon for Castro, without a whiff
of an explanation of why they do so, it is fair to conclude that they
don’t care, that they are posturing politically, or that they are not
sufficiently apprised by the administration of the importance of the
It is about time that the Cuban issue is addressed in a consistent
manner by people that have a continuing interest in the matter. At the
executive level there is too much turnover. As a result Castro knows
much more about the U.S system than vice versa. Superficial opinions by
self appointed experts abound. In the meantime basic facts hardly reach
the U.S. public level. Indeed, for the American public Castro and his
latest Latin American ‘exploits’ are not only not news, Castro’s Cuba
could well exist in another planet.
Events have shown that the policy of ‘benign neglect’ begets acute
Lack of a focused policy can see the island’s future government vest in
a group of false reformers. Worse yet a ‘pragmatic approach’ of
embracing a ‘reformed’ status quo, as proposed by some business and
political interests, can give respectability to a system that can easily
degenerate into a ‘high tech’ rogue state dedicated to a slew of
criminal activities 90 miles away. Past history shows that the talent to
do the latter is there. They have been preparing for a long time.
Underestimation again? Will it lead to another inflection point?
Nobody knows exactly how the end of the Castro regime will come or how
it will play out. In the immediate aftermath many scenarios are possible
and the governing U.S. administration will have to play the hand it is
dealt. Whether there is internal strife with much violence or little
violence, or some other result is unknown.
What we know for sure is that after a period of time economic and
political realities in Cuba will take the front stage and the process of
creating a viable country and economy will commence anew.
To help Cuba become a prosperous country and a good neighbor will be a
challenge. Absent war, for a foreign policy to be effective a democracy
needs to persuade and influence. Traditionally, that is the sphere of
diplomats but reconstruction of a destroyed society is a different
matter. No diplomat is blessed with the gift of ubiquity. No person in
today’s world has encyclopedic knowledge. Lack of an intelligent and
executable post Castro policy can have a disastrous result. A different
approach is needed to produce a good result.
A good result is a post Castro Cuba that is a trusted ally of the United
States and a great place for investment. In a very confused Latin
American continent Cuba has produced, by force of circumstance, an
important segment of population (exiled and in the island) vaccinated
against the evils of absurd nationalism and socialism. A new and
enlightened Cuban political class can be a force for good in the
hemisphere to the same extent that a radicalized class has been a force
Cuban Americans understand and want to cooperate in creating freedom and
prosperity. Immense numbers of capable people in the island want the
same. There is a very substantial body of business experience and sound
professional competence in many specialties in the Cuban American
community. Many would gladly help for no remuneration. Moreover, many
would be happy to donate money.
In order to obtain a good result the availability of this asset must
mark present and future policy. But it must be mobilized efficiently and
not in a haphazard fashion.
A systematic effort to channel and utilize these talents is lacking.
Isolated studies, grants to institutions, etc. are fine and can be
useful but often lack the professional focus of people that have hands
on experience. Further they do not encompass all the areas that must be
dealt with. Writing about privatizations and buying a state company and
making it succeed are not the same. The same can be said about many
important issues such as debt renegotiation, health policy, education,
housing, legal and judicial matters, etc.
The recent document prepared by the U.S. government on help for a free
Cuba is a good effort that raises essential issues. But it is a list of
things to do and good practice recommendations that are well known to
competent professionals. Although useful it does not deal with the ‘how
to adapt to a particular situation,’ nor does it offer continuity and
automatic update. It was completed and filed away. But life goes on in
Cuba. Every day things change. In any good study there is a base of
principles that have a permanence and validity that transcend time. But
when dealing with a society in motion guided by a totalitarian mafia,
static studies miss much because the mafia also reads and adapts to
The document explains the U.S. willingness to help in the areas that it
details. But to expect that a new and free government in Cuba will know
exactly what to do, and moreover have the political force to do it is
more than optimistic, it is unrealistic.
A liaison component that can communicate in the same language,
understand the psychology and have the professional competence is
It can be created rather easily. As we said there is a very unusual
reservoir of untapped talent close to the island, appraised of the
circumstances, fluent in both languages, and interested in the topic.
Further it can mobilize substantial capital resources. Recommendation:
a) Create a permanent body to study the Cuban post Castro
reconstruction. Semantics aside, from a practical viewpoint, it is a
reconstruction and not a transition simply because institutions are
lacking and because in Cuba there are very few organizations that can be
trusted to function fairly and efficiently.
b) This should be a private sector body mainly composed of Cuban or
Cuban American professionals residing in free countries with hands on
experience in different fields that would be invited or accepted as
volunteers to contribute their time for no remuneration. Volunteers that
are not Cuban and have specific skills would also be accepted. Members
would be reimbursed only for out of pocket expenses.
c) The entity would be apolitical and not connected to any particular
institution in order to eliminate suspicions of a particular point of
view or agenda. A need such as potable water is a need and period. The
object is not to debate political philosophy but present solutions.
Divergent opinions, even on more debatable issues such as how to
organize a free country subject to the rule of law, can be taken care of
in specific recommendations. Such is their proper place.
d) The basis of membership would be professional competence supported by
proven past experience and not political preference. A formal written
commitment to dedicate time would be required. Suggested name:
Professionals for Cuban Reconstruction.
e) Seed money in the form of expenses, exclusively for an administrative
staff, would be provided through a grant by AID or a similar federal
body. To sustain the body, contributions by the Cuban American community
would be encouraged and matched on a dollar to dollar basis by the
f) The entity would be charged with a continuing revision of the Cuban
situation. It should create a basic document for each substantial
reconstruction issue that details the present state and possible
solutions. Topics would cover all essential issues from the creation of
political and governing institutions to the bread and butter ones of
infrastructure, monetary and fiscal policy, etc. A comprehensive
treatment of topics would be a long list that nonetheless can be
systematized and linked as appropriate in order to produce useful
results. State of the art thinking and creativity would be encouraged.
g) Said documents would include an estimate of costs and possible ways
h) This entity would operate with full transparency and also be charged
with presenting the Cuban reality in a professional and factual way to
the American public and to congress
i) More importantly, its work product and staff would be available to a
free Cuban government. It may ask the entity, if it so wishes, to work
with Cuban local experts that have the intimate knowledge of where
action is more urgent as well as of the nature of the problems.
The predictable result in the United States would be to eliminate
useless rhetoric and nonsense from would be sellers of all things to a
bankrupt country with no debt capacity, and to present in stark terms
the fact that only through new capital investments can Cuba come around.
Obviously this would not happen unless an honest government, subject to
the rule of law, was incorporated into the equation. It would also show
how absurd it is to try to base a Cuban reconstruction on broken and
inoperative models. Something good cannot come out of nothing, or from
people that have only produced poverty and despair. Cubans need to be
spared additional doses of ruinous ideology and dishonesty.
For Cuba, a body as described would jump start the reconstruction
process and provide a sounding board for the Cuban government. It could
react with much more agility to provide advice and study on pressing
issues, than the classic international institutions that certainly will
be involved but have many other priorities and must follow their
After so many missteps it is time to do something different and base it
on people that are volunteers with no agenda. Cynics will say that this
is too idealistic. Perhaps, but cynics never created anything
worthwhile. Politicians will point to the obvious difficulties in
getting this started. Perhaps, but dealing with a neighbor rogue state
is even more difficult. Creative action is required.
A. L. August 2005