A few weeks ago, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen wrote an interesting article about Cuba today. Cohen is no knee-jerk leftist fellow-traveler, full of illusions about Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. He is an unusually conscientious reporter, who talks with disillusioned Fidelistas, Cuban refugees, diplomats, Cuban government officials, and scores of regular Cubans. He would like what he calls an anachronistic American-Cuban relationship to change, and he would like the oncoming Obama administration to come up with new solutions that would finally open up Cuba.
Obama, as he notes, campaigned against George W. Bush’s “tough talk,” and favored a new strategy based on lifting travel restrictions for family visits by Cuban exiles; freeing up remittances they can bring in to Cuba for their relatives, and for direct diplomacy with Cuban officials, provided they agree to advancing “the cause of freedom for the Cuban people.” Cohen points to the difficulty of doing this, since the official Cuban position is that “we do not accept that Cuba has to change in order to deserve normal relations with the United States.”
But change it must. As Cohen writes: “Fidel claimed he wanted to free Cubans from oppression. Instead, his revolution has oppressed them.” He provides readers with the evidence- in particular he writes about the more than 220 political prisoners thrown in jail for their belief in democracy. He ends his report by writing that Fidel’s revolution “has carried a terrible price for his people, dividing the Cuban nation, imprisoning part of it and bringing economic catastrophe.” (Cohen’s report is a refreshing change from the would-be reporter Sean Penn, whose own recent column in The Nation reads like a stenographer’s notes for Raul Castro’s propaganda.)
When it comes to advocating policy prescriptions, however, Cohen shows his naiveté. He thinks that in addition to the measures cited above, Obama should announce that he is “offering to open full diplomatic relations with Cuba immediately.” Such a step could lead to face-to-face negotiations at the highest level at which Obama could insist on the freeing of political prisoners, “as a first step toward beginning to lift the embargo.”
It is not surprising that Cohen believes the U.S. must act first. In a telling statement, he writes that Castro sought “a more-just society, but U.S. pressure radicalized his revolution and pushed it toward all-out socialism within the Soviet camp.” That widely repeated claim is perhaps the no.1 myth of accepted liberal opinion about the U.S. and Cuba: it was American policy that pushed Castro and Cuba towards the Communists and the Soviets; if only in 1959-60 the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations had accepted Castro’s revolution, given it an economic loan and reached out its hand to Castro, he would have proceeded to build a democratic and moderate revolution in the island.
The problem is that this account is not true. Scholarship over the past decade or two has shown that Castro had never sought an American loan; immediately moved to create a social revolution that could not be brought to fruition without a total break with the United States; had secretly forged an alliance with Cuba’s old line Communist Party before the 1959 revolution; and on his own and without provocation had turned to the Soviet Union for both political and economic support. Nothing the United States had done- indeed in Castro’s first months in power the U.S. had held out a helping hand that was firmly rejected- could have stopped Castro’s predetermined push to the far Left.
All one has to do to find this out is to read books by historian Robert F. Smith, journalist Tad Szulc and Latin American expert Mark Falcoff, some of them unfortunately out of print, but available in libraries and used book stores.
So what should be done, to turn back to Cohen’s original question? Certainly mid level negotiations, if accepted by the Cuban government, could take place. But the U.S. should insist that if Cuba really wants a formal lifting of the embargo, then Cuba must show its own good faith by immediately closing down all the prisons that hold the political prisoners, as well as allowing Cuban dissidents to openly express their ideas, to distribute petitions such as the Varela statement demanding free and open elections, and to have access to newspapers, magazines and radio and television.
In no way should the new administration accept Cuba’s most current offer: that they will trade political prisoners for the five Cuban espionage agents convicted in American courts and held in Florida prison for their crimes. To do so would be to equate men imprisoned for their ideas with those who were actual Cuban agents of the secret police, working in this country to undermine its national security. That offer was made without the approval of the brave Cuban dissidents in Castro’s prisons, and is nothing but an insult to their integrity and to their cause.
Cuba is in need of change, and the U.S.-Cuban relationship is also. But now, as in the past, the ball is in the hands of the Castro brothers.