The Big Idea

Democratic Cuba

Why Bush isn’t bringing it any closer.

Havana’s gorgeous decay

How serious is President Bush about this spreading-democracy business? When it comes to Cuba, where I recently spent several fascinating days, the answer appears to be: not serious at all.

Since Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, our Cuba policy has been regime change. We have plotted to assassinate and invade. We have frozen assets and suspended diplomatic relations. Most significant today are the sanctions we maintain, which forbid most trade and prevent Americans who cannot obtain a special Treasury Department license from visiting the island. Needless to say, isolation has not produced the desired result. Castro is the world’s longest-serving political leader.

Given the obvious failure of our 45-year embargo, an American president intent on liberating Cuba would surely be considering alternatives. The most obvious one, never tried, is free trade and increased contact. It’s hard to imagine that Castro would still be in power today if Havana had spent the last couple of decades awash in American tourists, Cuban-American visitors, and development-driving entrepreneurs (though walking around Havana’s gorgeous, tropical decay makes you perversely glad it hasn’t). Trade-fueled growth doesn’t always undermine autocracy—look at China. But it does tend to, because liberal ideas and truthful information come as part of the package. The other alternative policy, which would inflict more misery on both sides and almost surely not work, would be a tighter embargo banning family visits and dollar “remittances” altogether in an effort to starve the regime of hard currency.

Bush’s Cuba policy, which is based on the philosophy of interest-group conservatism, moves in both directions at once, thereby obviating any possible gain from either. At the behest of right-wing Cuban exiles who are central to Florida politics, the administration has tightened the screws of the embargo, making it much more difficult for Americans to obtain licenses to visit Cuba and reducing the frequency of permitted family visits by Cuban-Americans to once every three years. Americans who go illegally are now sometimes prosecuted, and a refrain in Havana is that the Department of Homeland Security is routinely denying visitor visas to Cuban artists, academics, and officials who wish to travel to the United States. But at the same time, Bush has overseen the expansion of trade under a huge loophole for the export of American agricultural commodities. One of the “Ladies in White,” the wife of an imprisoned independent journalist I visited in Havana, told me that the rice she gets on her official ration card comes from a bag with a Texas stamp.

What’s for sale in Cuba 

Bush further fails the cause of democracy by neglecting Cuba’s human rights movement and its most important figures. When they were in the White House, both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan lent crucial moral support to dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Corazon Aquino, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, and Václav Havel, whose voices were essential to the political transformation of their countries. Cuba’s leading dissident is Oswaldo Payá, who spearheaded the Varela Project, the most important act of defiance toward Castro to date. Varela supporters collected 40,000 signatures on a petition calling for a referendum on political and economic reform. The majority of the 75 dissidents and independent journalists thrown into jail by Castro in 2003 were Payá-niks. The Varela Project has indeed been mentioned prominently by an American president—but it was by Jimmy Carter, who visited Cuba in 2002 and gave a speech calling for expanded human rights that was carried live on Cuban television. So far as I can find, Bush has never referred to Payá in public.

This is not simply an oversight. Payá and his supporters, some of whom I met in Havana, for the most part do not favor the U.S. embargo, which they think hurts ordinary Cubans and retards change. They advocate liberal reform, dialogue, and “reconciliation.” Furthermore, they are wary of accepting material support from the Unites States, in part because Castro discredits all of his opponents by accusing them of being in the pay of America. Because they are open to dialogue and compromise with the government, Payá’s supporters are unpopular with the Bush-loving, pro-embargo exile community, which tends to believe in counterrevolution from above (Miami) and includes extremists with ties to terrorists, including Luis Posada Carriles.

Finally, Bush makes harder the job of democrats, both Cuban and American, by giving Castro so much fuel for anti-American propaganda. The U.S. Interests Section in Havana is surrounded by billboards decrying American atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. It’s an answer, though not a sufficient one, to note that there’s a notorious Cuban prison in Guantanamo as well, which holds 15 or more of Castro’s political prisoners. Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an independent journalist I visited in Havana who was released last year for health reasons, described the horrific conditions to me. (Here’s the English translation of an article about it by his wife, who fought heroically on his behalf.)

When the small group of American journalists and academics I was with met with Cuban officials, I found it even more difficult to defend aspects of Bush’s Cuba policy. When we had dinner with Ricardo Alarcón, the president of Cuba’s National Assembly, he went on and on about the United States’ failure first to arrest and now to extradite the terrorist Posada. It would be easier to answer this charge if the Bush administration weren’t so clearly making political calculations about how to handle Posada, as opposed to simply bringing him to justice. And why aren’t Americans—who aren’t even barred from traveling to North Korea—allowed to evaluate Cuba’s socialist paradise for themselves? There’s only one answer, and it’s not a good one: Florida.

It’s easy to be for democracy when there’s no price. The test for Bush is whether he’s willing to promote human rights when there’s a trade-off with other foreign-policy goals or his own political interests. In Cuba, he’s failing it.